Monday, January 22, 2007

State of the Union: What a Difference an Electoral Defeat Makes for Bush, GOP

A Chastened President Is Forced to Confront the Reality That He's a Lame Duck, That His War Strategy in Iraq is Deeply Unpopular and That His Unconstitutional Warrantless Domestic Spy Program Will Not Survive Unscathed

By Skeeter Sanders

It took him three months -- especially the last three weeks -- to finally face reality, but George W. Bush now knows that he's a lame-duck president, a full two years before the official end of his second term in the White House.

As he prepares to address for the first time in his six-year tenure a Congress controlled by the opposition and a nation firmly opposed to his planned escalation of the Iraq War in his annual State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Bush's Texas-bred swagger, as a Los Angeles Times editorial noted Sunday, is muted.

The man who boldly proclaimed himself "the decider" has been reduced to calling himself the "educator-in-chief," as he told CBS's "60 Minutes" last Sunday -- referring not to education but of what he sees as his need to "educate" the American people to support his Iraq and domestic policies, after they laid a heavy-duty smackdown to the president and his Republican Party in last November's election.

Taking a Page, Ironically, From the Far Left's Political Playbook

How ironic it is that this so-called "compassionate conservative" who spent the first six years of his presidency currying favor to the far right wing of his party is now about to embark on a tactic long used by the far left: "educating" the public to his side after being resoundingly repudiated at the ballot box.

Can he succeed? As president, Bush still has the bully pulpit at his disposal that he and his 42 predecessors have used on many occasions to appeal to the nation -- particularly the State of the Union address, which presidents are constitutionally obligated to deliver each year in January.

But if "educating" the public to your side after years of uncompromising, confrontational rhetoric and actions didn't work for the far left, what makes Bush think that using that tactic is going to work for him? And how can he do an 180-degree about-face without alienating the dwindling number of hard-line, right-wing true-believer supporters he has?

Bush will be delivering his State of the Union speech less than two weeks after he made a nationally televised address from the White House announcing his highly controversial Iraq troop buildup -- a speech that bombed badly, with 57 percent of Americans not even bothering to watch it, according to the Nielsen television ratings service.

How many people will bother to watch the State of the Union speech? Nobody knows.

Contrary to the Right's Claims, It's NOT 1994 Again

There are those on the right who have spent weeks comparing Bush and the GOP's electoral chastening to the smackdown the voters delivered to Bill Clinton's Democrats in 1994. But there are two huge differences here.

First, Clinton wasn't bogged down with an unpopular war half-way around the world. The Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994 because the voters were fed up with the Democrats' 40-year control of Congress and were then -- as now -- no longer trustful of the White House and Congress controlled by the same party.

Second, Clinton was in his first term in the White House, painfully aware that the voters could toss him out next in 1996. So Clinton changed course, announcing to the GOP-controlled Congress in his 1995 State of the Union speech that "The era of big government is over," to thunderous applause. But he was skillful enough to change course without betraying the bedrock principles he believed in.

Bush White House Got Drunk With Power and Abused It

Bush, on the other hand, doesn't have the voters to face again. He's already in his second term and is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third. That fact alone made Bush arrogant and stubborn, refusing to compromise -- or even listen to his allies when they could clearly see that he was going off in the wrong direction.

It also made the Bush administration more imperious than any other presidential administration before it, including Richard Nixon's -- so imperious that it repeatedly and flagrantly disregarded the separation of powers that the Constitution established between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

And with a Congress dominated by a rubber-stamp GOP, the administration felt it could do no wrong -- and, most dangerously, no one could stop it.

An Arrogant AG's Disregard of the Constitutional Role of the Judiciary

To this day, Bush's attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, still arrogantly asserts claims of executive authority that the Constitution does not permit, imperiously scolding federal judges for ruling on cases that affect national security policy.

Judges, Gonzales claims, are "unqualified to decide terrorism issues" that he said are best settled by Congress or the president.

Obviously, Gonzales is walking on dangerously thin constitutional ice here. When anti-terrorism policies by the executive branch directly clash with and even violate the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution -- as the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program so clearly and flagrantly does -- not only are judges fully qualified to decide on such issues, they have a constitutional obligation to do so.

And when the news media blew the whistle on the administration's unconstitutional and illegal activities, the attorney general had the unmitigated gall, the utter audacity to order a criminal investigation to find out who leaked the illegal program to the media -- ignoring a federal law that protects whistleblowers inside the government who expose government wrongdoing.

And if that wasn't arrogant enough, Gonzales, appearing on ABC's "This Week" last May, raised the threat of prosecuting journalists and the news organizations they work for over the publication or broadcasting of classified material -- which would, had he made good on his threat, set off the most serious First Amendment constitutional confrontation between the government and the news media since the Nixon era.

A Surprise About-Face on Warrantless Spy Program

So it had to have come as a shock last Wednesday when the White House did an about-face and announced that it had agreed to have the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court oversee its surveillance program -- and would stop its practice of eavesdropping on Americans suspected of having ties to terrorists without court warrants.

Why the sudden reversal? Obviously, the administration saw the handwriting on the wall when the Democrats won control of Congress in last November's election. The Democrats vowed to conduct rigorous investigations of the program -- including public hearings in which administration officials were certain to face hostile questioning.

The White House also was fighting off a legal challenge to the warrantless surveillance. A federal district court judge in Michigan last August declared the program an unconstitutional breach of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures and the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Is White House Finally Learning From History?

But another reason for the administration's about-face could have been this blogger's revelation, also last August, that the program was declared unconstitutional by the same federal district court that struck down a similar warrantless eavesdropping program by the Nixon administration more than 35 years earlier -- a ruling that was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court.

Moreover, this blogger also revealed that the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati -- which is expected to hear the government's appeal of the district court's ruling next week -- upheld the district court's 1971 ruling against Nixon's warrantless eavesdropping program.

Clearly, this was history about to repeat itself -- especially since the Bush administration already has lost twice in the Supreme Court over its treatment of terrorism suspects (and could lose a third time if an expected legal challenge to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 reaches the justices).

Faced with the likely prospect of yet another judicial defeat over its warrantless surveillance program, the administration apparently decided -- like a Texas Hold 'em poker player who knows he can't win -- to "fold 'em." But it won't stop the legal challenges. There are more than five years' worth of warrantless eavesdropping cases whose legality are clearly suspect.

Bush's Challenge in His Last Two Years in Office

Confronted with the new political reality in Washington, the Bush White House has apparently decided to pick its fights very carefully -- and has chosen to draw its "line in the sand" on the Iraq war effort. But with polls showing nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed to the president's Iraq troop buildup, Bush faces increasingly long odds, especially with 12 GOP senators up for re-election in 2008 and at least three of them expected to give up their seats to make a run for the White House.

So what is Bush going to say in his speech Tuesday night? Expect him to defend his Iraq strategy as "a vital step" in the broader war on terror. But beyond Iraq, don't expect the president to be full of the swagger that marked his previous State of the Union speeches.

To the contrary, expect Bush to put on a "charm offensive" in his dealings with the new Democratic-controlled Congress -- just as he did in 1995, during his first year as governor of Texas, when he had to face a Democratic-controlled Texas legislature.

But while Bush had to deal with Democrats from the very beginning of his six-year tenure in the Texas governor's mansion, Bush this time must deal with Democrats he demonized for five of his first six years in the White House. Whereas Texas governors have limited powers compared to those of their 49 fellow governors across the country, this president has sought to amass more power for himself than any other president in the history of this nation.

And as everyone who knows anything about politics knows, power corrupts. And nobody knows that better than the Capitol Hill Democrats who had been out in the political wilderness for 12 years before November 7.

Bush's "charm offensive" may have worked well for him in Austin, but it might not work for him at all in Washington.

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Volume II, Number 7
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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