Bad Politics Posted by: Dale Franks
on Friday, February 24, 2006
John Podhoretz looks at the Bush Administrations political skills on the Dubai Ports World deal, and echoes Casey Stengel's famous question: "Can't anybody here play this game?"
[I]t was a very, very bad move for the president to come out and threaten a veto of any congressional action on the matter. By being so aggressive — and by accusing those with trepidations about the deal of being unfair to Muslims — Bush demonstrated a surprising unwillingness to examine the political consequences of his actions.
No Republican politician is going to commit career suicide simply because the president asks him to. In 2002, his politically brilliant handling of the homeland-security issue won the Senate back for his party. In 2006, he came out of the White House and essentially demanded that Republicans on Capitol Hill fall in line on a matter that is far too complicated for him or them to explain — and risk his party's majorities in the House and Senate.
Not gonna happen. Only hours after Bush made his veto threat, the Republican leader of the Senate, Bill Frist, went on Hugh Hewitt's nationally syndicated radio show and said the votes would be there to override Bush's veto.
Now, I don't really care much about the port deal one way or another, although a lot of readers appear to have assumed I opposed it based on my initial post about it.
But my point then, and now, is that politically, it's a tone-deaf move. In an election year, 435 House members and 33 Senators are not gonna take any big risks on an issue like this. The general perception of Arab governments, even those classed as "allies", is that they are really a dodgy bunch. That perception may be unfair, but that's beside the point. The perception exists, and the president is asking Congresspeople to ignore that perception. I doubt there's too many Republicans who are all that interested in risking political suicide, just because the president asks them to.
But the president went further than that. Right out of the box, he starts to swing the veto stick. That's just not helpful, and all it did was send Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) on national radio to say that if the president vetoes, Congress will override him. Clearly, the president made a big political miscalculation on this one. Maybe that would be understandable for a president in the first part of his first term, but a year into his second term, it's just incomprehensible stupidity.
And, lest we forget, it's not the first time in recent memory either. He played the Harriet Miers' nomination in the same way. "Hey, trust me. We vetted her and everything. I know her heart. She'll be fine. Now shut up and play along."
Well, it didn't work then. What made him think it would work now? I mean, if you want to go to the wall with Congress, why pick this issue as the vehicle?
If the perception exists that Arab governments are dodgy, then you have to deal with it. You have to educate the electorate. You have to explain why switching from a British to a UAE holding company is no big deal. You have to explain why security concerns are minimal. You have to get the fact out, and educate the electorate.
The Bush Administration did none of that. The announcement was made, Congress got squirelly, and the president pulled out his big gun and waved it around. Which was, by the way, a perfectly stupid thing to do, unless he knew for a fact it would cow the Congress. You don't pull a gun unless you intend to shoot it.
It's just incomprehensible to me how any administration could have such terribly bad political instincts 5 years into its tenure.
For one, I am getting sick of the term "tone-deaf", as it assumes a value judgement; namely, that there exists a "tone" to hear, and that "tone" is worthwhile to hear.
When the "tone" is the screeching cacophony of xenophobia and bloviating port security non-experts, I am exceedingly happy that the president (1) chooses not to listen along, humming the tune; and (2) puts a stop to the embarrassing display.
Say what you will about the prudence of the veto threat, it put an immediate halt to calls for emergency legislation (outside the back-benchers). Stopped them cold; and they will not see the light of day again. Sure, Bill Frist made threats of override, but that was just face-saving political theater. He still has dreams of being a candidate for president, and if he was observed as being cowed by the veto threat, his fading hopes would have faded even more quickly.
It also had the not-insignificant effect of limiting the global public relations disaster that would have resulted from any knee-jerk special legislation that discriminated against an Arab company. The world does not revolve around Washington DC, but its opinions are observed closely for their global import. Xenophobic isolationist tendencies may be popular in short term domestic consumption, (unfortunately) especially in red states like mine; however, it looks exceedingly bad if you are standing on the outside looking in, as 95.5% of the world is. Congress can afford to ignore the world outside our borders, but the President, as the sole Constitutional entity for foreign relations, cannot.
It’s just incomprehensible to me how any administration could have such terribly bad political instincts 5 years into its tenure
Why? What would lead you to believe that this administration has exercised sound judgment about anything? Iraq? (Both pre-war intelligence analysis and post-war reconstruction.) Katrina? Medicare bill?
Politics, as opposed to competency is the Bush administration’s skill. George Bush has played the fear/terrorism card at every step. He has used it very effectively against his political opponents. Some would say that exhibits sound judgment. I don’t agree, but I understand the argument.
In this instance, however, he slipped. The argument in support of the port deal is way too nuanced to get across effectively. Indeed, Bush has counted on the lack of nuance in the past, i.e., Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and the entire Middle East is the same: anti-Democratic and hence, potentially, our enemy. The argument that this country, only one of three in the world to recognixe the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, among its other problems, is somehow "different" and be "trsuted" and it really isn’t going to he in a position to do any harm anyway, is DOA.
Bush is finally showing the same incompterence when it comes to politics as he has when it comes to policy and execution. It’s actually surprising it took this long.