The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern . . . Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1834-1902)
In a week when the chickens were coming home to roost and public opinion polls were declaring the President and Vice President "lame ducks" in the extreme, the President took the stage to declare war on bird flu -- an admirable and important public policy move, to be certain. But no matter how hard he tries to shift the conversation from the dreadful performance of his administration to some other scarier prospect -- terrorists, flu-infected chickens -- the truth will not go away. George Bush and Richard Cheney are increasingly seen by the American public as unfit to lead. And that spells trouble for the union.
November 5, 2005
There was more than a little irony and a touch of farce in George Bush’s “billions for bird flu” speech earlier this week, coming just when a flock of chickens were coming home to roost in the upper and lower reaches of an administration that has wielded far too much unchecked power for far too long. And when the latest polls suggest that the Vice President and President are “lame ducks” at best.
The lesson, I suppose, is that when you’ve got a house full of chickens coming home to roost and a brace of lame ducks limping around the hearth, bird flu is sure to follow.
Bird flu is deadly serious business; but so is responsible leadership from the nation’s Commander-in-Chief and his Vice President.
And no matter what your political beliefs and preferences may be, the national polls tell a clear and chilling story: better than 6 out of every 10 people in the country think George W. Bush is not doing his job properly; and by the same margin, they have determined he’s not trustworthy.
The Vice President’s numbers are less than half that, meaning that better than 8 out of 10 rate him unfit for leadership.
We’ve been told on countless occasions that neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney pay attention to polls. But when the numbers bring news of historic lows for the institution of the presidency, it’s time for wise heads and real patriots in the Republican family to have a long fireside chat with two men whose administration has gone seriously off-track.
The President and Vice President have been doing a stellar job of “tending to their base,” but the political cost of that is beginning to take its toll on the state of the union. Naming a new nominee for the Supreme Court who passes their litmus test, or ordering the staff into ethics seminars won’t fix the problem.
In the words of Alice Rivlin -- Brookings scholar and one of America’s most distinguished public servants of the last half-century: “The problem is the problem.”
And the problem is that the President and Vice President are woefully and dangerously out of synch with the majority of their fellow countrymen and women. They have lost the trust of the people, and in a representative democracy, where trust is truly the coin of the realm, this leaves them and us in a very bad spot, indeed.
The options available are either highly improbable and distasteful for them or profoundly divisive and undesirable for the country. Whether the President and Vice President's supporters are ready to concede the point, the public's disdain for the performance of this administration in its various theaters of action has reached the point where denial, cosmetic moves and verbal bullet-dodging will no longer suffice.
This behavior will not stand.
The Vice President: he needs to take the public podium to apologize for the unacceptable behavior of his office, he included. He need not admit guilt on his or any staff member’s part, but he must acknowledge the failure of leadership that is consistent with his oath. He brings in a new chief of staff to replace David Addington, someone of stature who is trusted by the party, the Congress, the press, and the Vice President himself.
The President: he begins by asking for Karl Rove’s resignation. He reassigns his chief of staff, Andrew Card elsewhere in the administration (to Treasury, perhaps, to replace the hapless, John Snow.) He brings in a new chief of staff whose arrival signals that the next three years will be anything but business-as-usual. He replaces Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. He makes a prime time address to the nation in which he apologizes to the American public for behavior that is in direct contradistinction to the commitments he made in his first campaign for the office. And then he grits his teeth while the Administration suffers through the Libby court proceedings (and more to follow, perhaps.)
These two men have made their beds, and now must lie in them. They have demonstrated what can happen when a cadre of political bedfellows becomes so inflexible and infected with their own righteousness that the ends will allow for unacceptable means.
The alternative to the highly improbable – which all of these steps are, by the way – is the consideration of impeachment, which is an awful prospect and a political event to be avoided at (nearly) any cost.
When the chronicles of this period in American history are written by responsible historians, who have the benefit of perspective and access to papers and records that will not be available for some time, it will demonstrate that in the opening years of the 21st century America fell victim to Lord Acton’s axiom.
We have seen it in the Congress, the Administration, the executive suites and board rooms of corporations, the pulpits and confession booths of our churches, the offices of highly respected nonprofit organizations, the newsrooms of revered institutions of journalism, and on the courts and fields of play in every sport.
Little in our culture has escaped the intoxicating, seductive, and corruptive clutches of absolute power or runaway wealth. It threatens our democracy as surely as bird flu, global warming, or a nuclear holocaust. But in order to make the necessary course corrections, we must first admit that we have gone off-course – seriously off-course.
And it starts with the President and the Vice President.