The End Of The Trust-Me Presidency?
October 12, 2005
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
In true Texas swagger, Bush has been running a trust-me presidency since day one. Enacting tax cuts for the wealthy? Oh, don't worry about the fiscal implications (like the long-term, humongous national debt); everything will work out. Ripping up the Kyoto global warming accord? We promise to come up with a better way of handling the problem…at some point. Our energy plan? We don't have to tell you which energy industry executives we met with because we know we're doing what's best for the country. Can't you take our word? The war in Iraq? Our classified intelligence—which we can't show you because it's, eh, classified—says Saddam Hussein is up to his evil keister in WMDs. You'll just have to….well, you know.
Even Bush’s pals on the right have had occasion to be pacified by assurances that if they trust Bush, they’ll eventually get what they want. Bush claimed to be a fancier of small government, but he expanded Medicare with a prescription drug benefit and oversaw a dramatic expansion of government spending. He blasted the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation as unconstitutional, but he signed it into law. He touted his faith-based initiative, but he did so little to advance it that his point man on the project, John Dilulio, felt compelled to resign. Bush claimed to be a let-the-markets-decide free-trader, but he imposed steel tariffs months before the 2002 congressional elections (to deny Democrats a political issue). He vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, but he nominated Harriet Miers. And he said, trust me.
Finally, Bush's trust-me routine has run out of gas. The public now believes his war in Iraq was a mistake. And with Katrina, Bush demonstrated that he could not be trusted to oversee the federal government's foremost duty: the protection of the citizenry. Nor could he be trusted to appoint the right people to do so. (See Michael Brown.)
In the wake of Katrina, conservatives—such as the ubiquitous Bill Kristol—were forced to concede that Bush is not always so swell on governing. They also had to recognize that the ongoing drop in Bush's approval ratings could no longer be ignored or dismissed as the result of bad news from the tough case of Iraq. This set the stage for the reaction by the White House's erstwhile right-wing allies after Bush chose Miers; they went category-five berserk.
Now, conservatives have no defense against those Bush critics who have argued (for years) that Bush is not serious—not about the issues, not about meeting the responsibilities of governing, not about telling the truth. After all, how is Miers in the mold of Scalia and Thomas (who are only united by their individual allegiance to a hard-edge conservatism)? The neocons, the retro-cons, the social cons—they can all see the biting reality: the Bush presidency is about Bush , not them, not their ideas. Miers is his choice. And she was picked because she has been loyal to him, not to their cause.
The White House has tried to make Miers' loyalty (to Bush) a selling point. One of the more outrageous quotes of last week came from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, a social conservative leader who has lauded the Miers nomination. In the midst of the wildfire of right-wing rage, Land defended the Miers pick by saying, "I am from Texas. George W. Bush is from Texas and Harriet Miers is from Texas. And in Texas, we have two important values, courage and loyalty. If she were to rule in ways that are contrary to the way the president would want her to rule, it would be a deep personal betrayal." So here was one of Miers loudest partisans endorsing her because she would factor her loyalty to Bush into judicial decisions. On Meet the Press , Land hammered this point further, noting "if someone is disloyal, if someone betrays a trust, in Texas, they're right down there with child molesters and ax murderers." He was actually arguing that right-wingers could depend on Miers' sense of allegiance to George W. Bush.
Loyalty to Bush is not winning the day for the White House among the conservative chattering (or gnashing) class. What will happen among GOP senators—the bloc that counts the most—is anyone's guess at this point. Certainly, Miers' performance at her confirmation hearings could influence these lawmakers much. (Ms. Miers, please tell us what you think of the judicial philosophy expressed in the court's majority opinion in Wickard v. Filburn ? But, first, for the benefit of Americans watching these proceedings on C-SPAN, can you just describe the basics of that case? Here's a hint: It was decided in 1942, and it involved wheat.) But however this nomination plays out with the Senate GOPers, it seems that the conservative activists and leaders cannot be won back—especially not by the thin arguments of loyalty. (Miers is loyal to Bush. Bush is loyal to conservatism. They should be loyal to Bush.) And neither will the cons be won over by Bush's silly assertion that Miers is a good pick because, as he said, "I know her well enough to be able to say that she's not going to change, that 20 years from now she'll be the same person with the same philosophy that she has today." Really? Seventeen years ago, she was giving money to Al Gore and the Democratic Party. It seems she does change.
Let's give the angry conservatives credit for remaining true to their (misguided) cause, for placing ideological loyalty over partisan loyalty. It may be easy to kick Bush since he's so low in the polls. Still, the vendetta mentality of the Bush clan is widely known. Perhaps it is a sign of premature lame-duckism that fear of Bushian revenge is not restraining most leading conservatives. Nevertheless, more power to them.
On CNN on Monday, Wolf Blitzer asked Robert Bork—a mythical and heroic figure for right-wingers—about Republican senator Mitch McConnell's optimistic prediction that almost every Republican senator will end up voting for Miers. "I hope not," Bork shot back. Shouldn't Bork and other conservatives, Blitzer asked, give Miers the "benefit of the doubt?" "What doubt?" Bork snappily replied. He added that Miers had "no practical qualification" for the Supreme Court job. Moreover, Bork blasted Bush for the "demoralization of the conservative legal establishment."
For years, Bork explained, many conservative jurists have toiled hard to rise through the judicial ranks—during which they have suffered the slings and arrows of the liberals—in eager, enthusiastic and plodding preparation for the historic moment at hand: when the court could be tipped, and one of them could be the tipping agent. Bush, Bork argued, just gave all these people—the best minds on the right—the finger. For Bork-loving conservatives, loyalty is the issue: Bush's loyalty to them. And Bush showed how much he cares about that.
Bork and the others are far beyond being persuaded by trust-me arguments. Will this episode cause them to question Bush's seriousness and credibility on other fronts? (For instance, will they conclude that it is not good for the nation to have a fellow who is not serious, who is not credible, who is not good on execution, who is insular, who is a fan of cronyism making the tough calls on matters of war and peace?) I doubt it. It's tough to dump one's entire portfolio. But this nomination sent conservatives a harsh message: the Bush presidency is about Bush, not them.