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The Seer And the Scandals

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, June 1, 2006

In its September 2004 issue, Washington Monthly magazine invited 16 smart political observers -- a mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents -- to write short essays predicting what would happen if George Bush won a second term.

The answers, understandably enough, were all over the lot. But no one suggested that one-third of the way through his second term Bush would have suffered the political and policy reverses that he has actually experienced.

Last week was unfortunately typical for an administration that cannot seem to catch a break. The once-compliant House of Representatives, which in 2005 began its defiance with a refusal to bring Bush's signature Social Security plan to a vote, dug in its heels against the top priority on his 2006 agenda, a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

And in the latest example of administrative incompetence, following the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, the Department of Veterans Affairs was unable to explain how the confidential files of as many as 26 million veterans were stolen from the home of a department employee -- or why the loss went unreported for weeks.

Even as Bush and his most loyal international partner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, met to celebrate the (partial) formation of a permanent government in Iraq, a wave of violence swept across Baghdad, taking the lives of two members of a CBS News television crew, among others. And details began leaking out about an alleged massacre last November of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines who were said to be retaliating for the death of one of their buddies in one of the countless roadside bombings.

As if to mock further the complications of superpower life, a traffic accident in Kabul, Afghanistan, was all that was needed to trigger an outburst of anti-American violence in a country we had "liberated" but now cannot find a way to leave.

This second-term swamp is a far cry from what most of the Washington Monthly experts predicted -- and from what I would have guessed had I indulged in a crystal-ball exercise. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, said Bush and the Republicans would send the Democrats into permanent political exile. Paul Begala, a Democratic political consultant, said Bush would exact vengeance on his political enemies. Several people predicted that he would usher in a new era of good feelings, tackling global warming and avoiding divisive social issues. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The one commentator who got it exactly right was Kevin Drum, who runs the magazine's blog. "What do we have to look forward to if George W. Bush is elected to a second term?" he asked. "One word: scandal."

History backed that forecast. Almost every reelected president in modern times has been victimized by scandal, from Eisenhower's losing his chief of staff, who resigned over the gift of a vicuña coat, to Clinton's facing impeachment.

But Drum found additional reasons that led him to conclude that Bush and the Republicans might be particularly susceptible. For one thing, he said, "both Bush and the current Republican Party leadership have already demonstrated a ruthlessness and disregard for traditional political norms." He cited the lengthy roll calls in the House of Representatives during which arms were twisted to produce favorable votes; the redistricting in Texas to gain five Republican House seats; and the hard-line secrecy imposed by the White House on executive decisions.

Second, he said, the culture of lax supervision of executive agencies by the Republican Congress encouraged misbehavior on Capitol Hill -- and made it likely the malfeasance would reach aromatic heights before it was finally detected. Look at the time it took for the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay network to be exposed, the number of times the House ethics committee flinched from fully exposing it -- and you see how right Drum was.

And, finally, he said, the lack of major policy initiatives would leave a vacuum in the news that would make scandal look like the most prominent feature of the political landscape. The near-impasse in Iraq, the painfully long and ultimately unproductive debates about Social Security and immigration, the impasse on energy and health care, and the unwillingness to come to grips with budget deficits -- all this background noise makes the stories of Duke Cunningham's Rolls-Royce and William Jefferson's freezer full of marked bills that much more vivid.

Drum concluded his essay by saying that 2006 would be likely to provide "the perfect breeding ground for a major scandal, and George Bush is exactly the right guy, with exactly the right personality, to step right into it."

So far, the scandal has not involved the president personally, but the stench of corruption is all around the city -- too close for comfort.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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