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Besieged Bush faces attacks from friends as well as foes

Besieged Bush faces attacks from friends as well as foes

As the President sees his ambitious plans for his second term mired in a swamp of scandal and investigations, Paul Harris maps out what the future may hold for the radical Republican revolution and the divided Democrats

Sunday October 30, 2005
The Observer

On Monday evening last week, as darkness descended on the capital, smartly dressed FBI agents moved quietly through the leafy Washington neighbourhood of Georgetown. They knocked on doors, questioning several residents about how well they knew Valerie Plame, the exposed CIA agent at the heart of a scandal that has rocked the Bush administration to its foundations.
These are times of deep crisis in America. The stunning image of FBI agents scouring the most exclusive suburbs of Washington, just a mile or so from the White House, sums up the mood of fear, paranoia and siege mentality now gripping the Bush administration.

President George Bush has just had the worst single week of his political life. It first saw the 2,000th US soldier die in Iraq. Then came the humiliation of Harriet Miers withdrawing her candidacy for the Supreme Court. Finally, came the hammer blow of Plamegate that saw top White House aide Lewis 'Scooter' Libby face five criminal charges and perhaps a lengthy jail term.

And there is no end in sight to the troubles. Bush's political guru Karl Rove is still under the shadow of investigation by the Plamegate prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. A trickle of former allies, friends and colleagues have also begun openly to turn on Bush. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, has blasted the march to war with Iraq, blaming it on a right-wing 'cabal' in the administration. Brent Scowcroft, a close confidant of Bush's father, has also gone public. He last week slammed the war in Iraq and revealed the younger Bush had not spoken to him in two years.

That sums up Bush's mood: bitter and angry at his perceived enemies who are then cast out of the inner circle. The formerly watertight Bush White House is starting to leak badly, revealing an inside picture of a President furious at the way his second term has collapsed around him and unwilling to blame himself for any of the disasters. Bush has always had a temper, but now reports of furious tirades against senior staff, and even of rows between Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, have begun to emerge.

It was only 10 months ago that Bush was being inaugurated in grand pomp and boasting of the 'political capital' that his 2004 election victory had given him. He planned a radical domestic agenda that would reshape the tax system and reform social security.

All that is now in tatters as instead the Bush administration devotes itself to fending off a spate of crises that seem to be permanently camped on the White House lawn. It also faces the enormous task of trying to pull things together for key mid-term elections next summer. Once seen as an opportunity for further Republican gains, Bush will now be firmly on the defensive, trying to hold on to the Republican revolution in the US. Many Republican candidates may even distance themselves from the President to hold on to their seats.

But the ramifications of this past week do not stop just at Bush's Oval Office desk. Bush's defeat over the Miers nomination shows how a vastly weakened President has been forced to backdown by radical right-wing conservatives. 'The Miers withdrawal is an unparalleled victory for conservatives,' said leading right-wing commentator Ann Coulter.

The radical right movement, with its agenda on abortion rights and social issues such as gay marriage, will now have to be placated. And the bloodshed of the Iraq war is not going away soon.

The past week was not only a political disaster for Bush, it was bad for America as a whole.

The face of Staff Sergeant George Alexander stared out of many US newspapers last week. It was not an honour the 34-year-old Texan would have wanted. Nor would his wife and two children who were looking forward to seeing him at Christmas. But a roadside bomb outside the Iraqi town of Samarra put paid to those plans. It also made Alexander the 2,000th US soldier to die in the war. It was a grim milestone and one that the Bush administration had long dreaded.

Iraq is the central crisis in the Bush administration. It is from there that many of the other disasters that have rocked the White House have sprung. The 'V word' - comparing Iraq to Vietnam - is no longer taboo in Washington. Some politicians on both sides openly talk of the need for an exit strategy.

Politically, it is Iraq that gave birth to Plamegate, the investigation into who leaked the identity of Plame to reporters, apparently to smear her husband, ex-diplomat Joseph Wilson, who had become a critic of the build-up to war. That investigation has now spread its tentacles all over the administration. In fact, it goes to the heart of the Iraq issue: was intelligence deliberately misused to railroad Americans into believing Saddam Hussein was a direct threat? On Friday the probe claimed its first scalp, indicting Libby for perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. For 22 months the probe, led by Chicago prosecutor Fitzgerald, has ticked under the White House like a timebomb. It has now exploded, putting Cheney's office firmly at the centre of the scandal. Fitzgerald believes Cheney himself told Libby of Plame's work. That means, when Libby comes to trial, Cheney would be called as a witness.

'The implication of Cheney may turn out to be the biggest story. Cheney clearly was digging into Plame's background before her identity was publicly revealed,' said Ivan Eland, a politics expert at the Independent Institute think tank.

Fitzgerald's work has paralysed the White House. The tough Brooklyn-born prosecutor, who made his name investigating the Mafia, has said his probe is not yet over. The shadow of Plamegate has not lifted from the White House. For Rove - and perhaps many other officials - Plamegate is in danger of becoming an agonising political death. Though officials talk brazenly of 'business as usual' it is in fact anything but normality in the corridors of power. There are even whisperings of Cheney stepping down to be replaced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That is unlikely, but such a thought would have been fantasy a few weeks ago. Now it is an outside bet.

It is hard to overstate the depths of Bush's political crisis. All these events are taking place against a backdrop shaped by the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, charges of cronyism and surging oil prices that hurt Americans in their pockets as oil companies rake in record profits. There are also a series of corruption scandals that have seen top Republican party official, and close friend of Bush, Tom DeLay charged with campaign finance fraud and Republican Senate leader Bill Frist face an insider trading inquiry. 'This crisis is the culmination of years of tricky news management over Iraq, arrogance, cronyism and sloppiness by the Bush team,' said Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University.

There are precedents in recent US history. When Ronald Reagan's second term appeared railroaded by disaster, including the Iran-Contra scandal, he brought in senior aide James Baker to shake up the White House, replacing staff and providing a boost that many see as saving Reagan's presidency. Many observers are looking for a 'Baker moment' from Bush. It might be a long wait. Bush places a huge premium on loyalty and has a history of sticking by his closest friends. Despite huge pressure, including from top Republicans, he has stood by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rove and many other officials in the darkest of times. It is unlikely he would ask them to quit now.

Bush was sitting in the White House's family quarters at 8.30pm last Wednesday when Miers called him on a private line. She was withdrawing her name from the nomination process to the Supreme Court, Miers said, citing pressure by some politicians to see details of the legal advice she had given the President in her role as his top lawyer.

It was a good cover story. Miers was sacrificing herself to protect her President's right to speak confidentially with his top advisers. The truth of course was far more complex and reveals a bigger problem even than the Plamegate affair. In fact, Bush's bid to put Miers, a relatively unknown lawyer, on the court had triggered a ferocious fight with the conservative right. They had long dreamt of a Supreme Court nominee who would reflect their anti-abortion views and tip the court's delicate balance firmly to the right. Miers seemed a betrayal of that ambition. The result was a brutal staring match between Bush and the right wing: Bush blinked first. Earlier that Wednesday, Senate leader Frist had given White House chief of staff Andy Card a 'frank assessment' of Miers's chances. They were not good. Miers jumped before she was pushed.

The victory of the conservatives shows their new power in the party. Evangelical Christians, motivated over abortion and anti-gay marriage, provided the fuel in the engine of Bush's presidential wins in 2000 and especially in 2004. They form a huge part of the Republican election machine in fundraising but especially in sheer numbers of volunteers. They allow Republicans to out-organise the Democrats. After last year's victory many Christian conservative leaders openly boasted of the size of the debt Bush now owed them. Miers's nomination seemed to be an attempt to renege on that debt. But the conservatives have forced him to pay up. 'It will be a long time before the White House thinks it can use and abuse conservatives again,' said Coulter.

Bush's new pick will now almost certainly be a died-in-the-wool conservative in the mode of current Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Many Democrats fear that this will mean Roe v Wade, the famous judgment that paved the way to legalise abortion in America, will soon be under threat.

But the conservative victory over Miers has other ramifications too. It reveals a weak President whose party is now looking beyond him. Some of the people who were most fiercely anti-Miers, such as the arch-conservative Nebraska senator, Sam Brownback, have presidential ambitions of their own for 2008. The era of Bush is waning and a new generation of leaders in the Republican Party are flexing their muscles.

The next battlefield will be the 2006 mid-term elections. At stake is control of both houses of Congress, which Republicans fought for decades to wrest from the Democrats. 'If things continue to go south for the Republicans, their majority in both chambers could be in danger,' said Larry Haas, a former official in the Bill Clinton White House. The question is: can the Democrats take advantage?

As Miers was making her telephone call to Bush last Wednesday, John Kerry was giving a public speech at Gaston Hall in Washington. He spoke out against the Iraq war, defining his Iraq policy a mere 51 weeks after losing to Bush last year. At one point he introduced his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and remarked ruefully at the cheering crowd: 'If only more of you had moved to Ohio.'

That is typical of the mood of many senior figures in the Democratic Party. The Democrats are still engaged in a bout of introspection after last year's devastating loss. In fact, far from being able to capitalise on Bush's many crises, they are also in danger of becoming a victim of them. Iraq has split the Democrats. The favourite to secure the 2008 nomination, Hillary Clinton, is a hawk on Iraq. She has campaigned for a bigger military and refused to condemn the war. Kerry meanwhile - at last - has come out punching, sounding like his 1960s Vietnam protester incarnation. 'Despite all the troubles of the Republicans, the Democrats have not got a single message of a positive alternative to the Republicans,' said Haas 'The message, "We are not those guys", will not be enough.'

The collapse of the Miers nomination could rebound on the Democrats. Miers's views on abortion were unclear. That is not likely to be the case with whoever is next nominated. That ensures that the Democrats will fight hard to defeat Bush's new pick for the court. The Republicans have threatened to remove the Democrats' ability to 'filibuster' a nominee if they try to block judicial appointments. This so-called 'nuclear option' would remove one of the vital checks in the US government. It would give the Republicans carte blanche just as the party takes a lurch to the right. Even as they gloat over George Bush's woes, it is hard to see how any of that is good news for the Democrats.

The impact of last week's crises will rumble around the US for years.




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