Monday, September 12, 2005

Brownie Goes Down

Embattled and incompetent Michael Brown has resigned as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mission accomplished! It's a rare accountability moment for this administration, and a much needed departure. Now let's see them place someone highly experienced and qualified in charge of FEMA.

That wraps up the raison d'etre of this blog. Please check me out over at my home page.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Age of Terror

For a while after 9/11, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I had a feeling there would be some other major attack on our cities or our infrastructure. From a few weeks after 9/11 until I moved out of L.A., my recurring nightmare involved terrorists blowing up the Hoover Dam, and the devastation that would result as the water supply for the entire Southwest was suddenly cut off.

Then I moved out of L.A., and I stopped having the nightmare. Eventually I found that I'd only think about that other shoe from time to time, always surprised at how long had passed since the last time it popped into my head.

One thing I thought I was sure of: we'd never see anything like 9/11 again in one of our major cities, with people running wildly through the streets, afraid for their lives.

This time the force of the catastrophe was made by nature, not by man. But that is hardly a defense of our government's response, for this was the most widely predicted natural disaster in American history. Our government had years to prepare for the eventuality. They had days to put the plans into practice once it became clear where Katrina was headed.

Terrorists, operating as they do on the basis of shock and surprise, tend not to announce their plans so clearly. If our government cannot save lives in a situation they spent twelve days practicing for last year, how can we expect them to keep us safe from terrorists?

We can't. Not this government, not now. And I do not mean to make this entirely a criticism of the Republican Party that controls the executive and both houses of Congress. A huge part of the problem is the mediocrity of our political classes in both parties, perhaps also a byproduct of a baby boomer generation more invested in feeling good than working hard.

The weak character of our political classes can account for many of our government's shortcomings: the focus on winning power (in elections) rather than using it wisely, fairly, and competently; the focus on contributors over constituents, of taking money from a few over listening to the masses.

In a healthy two-party system, the flaws of one party serve to the advantage of the other. The other party can always insist upon accountability and transparency. However, when one party dominates, as the GOP has the last several years, its weaknesses and flaws become institutionalized. When the House decides not to hold ethics investigations, when the president and his advisors claim executive privilege to make torture acceptable and invisible, how can there be accountability? And without transparency, those in the majority party can deny there is even a problem, that those complaining are affected by liberal media bias or engaging in a partisan political attack. Because before substance, before values, first and foremost there is always politics.

But now it's as if two-thirds of the nation has been jolted awake, out of the torpor of politics as usual. Four years after 9/11, we realize we really are no safer. That what we thought our government was up to was nothing more than sleight of hand, nothing more than a magic cloak to keep us from noticing how naked and exposed we really are.

We are no longer living in the post-9/11 era. Because now, post-9/11 is also post-Katrina. It's going to take a long time to pick up the pieces. And who knows long it will take for us not just to feel safe again, but to actually be safe again?

We thought it was the post-9/11 era, but now we know. This is the Age of Terror. And God help us all. Because, for the time being, our government sure as hell can't.

A New Low, Indeed

Those are the images and words you'll find juxtaposed currently on Newsweek's home page.

Their Web exclusive cover story is chock full of data covering the developing -- and worsening -- political situation for the president. Michael Brown may be getting a good night's sleep, but it's gonna take a lot of those margaritas for Karl Rove to get another one again for a long time to come.

Particularly shocking are these statistics; I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw the graphic on CNN in the 10 p.m. Eastern hour:

More critical to President Bush—and the GOP’s future as the nation’s majority party: most Americans, 52 percent, say they do not trust the president “to make the right decisions during a domestic crisis” (45 percent do). The numbers are exactly the same when the subject is trust of the president to make the right decisions during an international crisis.

You've got to love Newsweek's sense of irony in putting those two images together. So helpful to underscore that what used to be the president's greatest strength -- his resolute and powerful response to the 9/11 attacks -- was psychological.

The president is like a poker player who keeps stoking the pot, raising the stakes, forcing everybody to fold, and winning every hand without showing his cards. Katrina caught him by his surprise, made him flip his hold cards, and he was stuck sitting there with seven-deuce offsuit against a royal flush.

When you play no limit Texas Hold 'Em, you can lose everything on a single hand. The president swore we'd never have another 9/11. We the people swore we'd never see our own citizens running scared for their lives through another of our great cities. So much for never again.

The 9/11 Effect

Some pundits called it the 9/11 effect: people were so fearful about another terrorist attack after 9/11, the day that so changed our way of life, that they would accept all kinds of changes. Changes to the law, changes to security procedures in airports and public places. And, yes, changes to government bureaucracy.

For the last few years, when his poll numbers started to dip, it seemed like all President Bush had to do was go out in public, throw out a few "9/11"s, and back up they'd come.

The 9/11 effect surely accounts for much of Bush's increased margin of victory nationally in his 2004 win over that of 2000. Results in suburban areas of Los Angeles and New York City -- including towns in New Jersey and Connecticut -- showed a marked uptick in Bush support. Surely this wasn't because all those people suddenly turned against abortion, evolution, and the gays.

The 9/11 effect was a very real force, and it was key to Bush winning a second term. Now it's over, certainly as a political force for Bush, and very likely for the Republican Party.

What are the main initiatives of the response to 9/11? The war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and the creation of the bloated monster known as the Department of Homeland Security. The war in Afghanistan had broad support, and it's the only one of these that can count as anything like a success -- and that's only if you overlook our failure, four years on, to be any closer to putting Osama bin Laden in the box where he belongs.

Homeland Security now looks like an unmitigated disaster. Brown is still officially in charge of FEMA, so if al Qaeda attacks today, they would have to actually fire him to keep him from being part of the response. Next I expect you'll see more focus on Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has also made some fishy statements in the past two weeks.

The Homeland Security fiasco is all the more ironic because Bush did not originally support the department as currently constituted. The proposal originated in Congress and he only backed it after public support did.

As for the Patriot Act -- its key selling point is that it encourages government agencies to share intelligence and work more closely together. Is this really happening? Four years later, it seems like we have a continued problem with intelligence at all levels of government.

As for Iraq -- I supported the war for reasons explained here. There I also explain why -- since we sort-of knew they probably didn't have WMD and Iran was cookin' em up as fast as they could -- it might have been smarter to hold our military force in reserve to use as a more credible threat against the mullahs in Tehran.

Now we've shot our wad, and made it very clear that -- barring a massive mobilization that would require a draft -- we won't be invading anyone larger than Grenada anytime soon.

Keep in mind, this is all by the design of the Secretary of Defense. He believes we should have a smaller military. When the generals told him how many troops we'd need to invade and secure Iraq, he lowballed them time and again. Hundreds of our troops and thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians have died as a result. Heck, I should set up a Web site calling for his firing.

Except, of course, that that would require President Bush to take responsibility and hold someone accountable -- something he appears to remain constitutionally incapable of doing. Rumsfeld claims he offered to resign twice, and Bush turned him down. Why?

There Goes the Base

Lee Iacocca once said in business, as in life, you either lead, follow, or get out of the way.

President Bush -- and a number of federal officials -- have chosen time and again to follow. They follow public opinion and sentiment so closely that they appear to be ahead of it. When we need to be reassured, to feel powerful, as in much of the last four years, that's always worked for them.

But now the bottom's fallen out -- literally -- as the GOP's base gets the heck out of the way. Astonishing money quote from Newsweek:

And only 28 percent of Americans say they are “satisfied with the way things are going” in the country, down from 36 percent in August and 46 percent in December, after the president’s re-election. This is another record low and two points below the satisfaction level recorded immediately after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal came to light. Fully two-thirds of Americans are not satisfied with the direction of the country.

Wild guess: that 28 percent consists almost entirely of Christianist activists, people making over $200,000 a year, and employees of Fox News Channel.

The law-and-order Republicans, the classic conservatives, the hawkish conservatives, the -- dare I say it -- fiscal conservatives: They're in that other two-thirds.

This is a hugely important development, and very, very bad for the president. He's the only Republican not facing election in 2006 or 2008. It's also bad for the GOP's congressional leaders, who have to try to hold on to both houses in another year at the same time that many of them are planning to run to replace Bush.

Here's the conundrum: All those loyal GOPers not in the 28 percent are not gonna want to vote for a Democrat -- and certainly not Mrs. Bill Clinton. But the strategy from Frist to Romney to Allen to Brownback has been appealing to the Christianists. They are the ones who don't want to admit that something in our government (let alone their party) is horribly broken and needs to be fixed, because that would compromise the power they've been waiting for for decades. Not just since the Reagan administration, but since Goldwater led the movement into the wilderness have they been waiting for this moment.

This is how extraordinarily the world has turned: They've reached the highest power imaginable in their grandest designs, and the best they could do to replace Rehnquist is John Roberts. Roberts is surely no Scalia or Thomas. If he's ideologically similar to Rehnquist, then the nom is a wash. If, however, he is even slightly to Rehnquist's left, he'll break up the Rehnquist-Thomas-Scalia triumvirate and be instrumental in bringing the court back to the center.

I really don't understand why my friends on the left are so up in arms over Roberts, especially now. Moving Roberts from replacing O'Connor to replacing Rehnquist is a sign of Bush's uncertainty and weakness. The only thing they're sure of is that they can get Roberts through the Senate, and they can't take another hit right now.

With Roberts replacing Rehnquist, the stakes are upped massively for O'Connor's replacement. There will be huge pressure -- particularly from Republican women -- for another woman. The president may well pick his friend and co-architect of the White House's torture policy, Alberto Gonzales. If he picks Gonzales or someone like Priscilla Owen, the tides have shifted so much now that a Borking may not only be deserved, but actually possible.

Before Katrina, Republican moderates and mavericks (conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham) never hesitated to flex their political muscle. Now they may be the GOP's best hope, and our government's as well, as that party will have total control until at least January 2007.

Hopefully it won't take nearly that long for us to get our act together.