Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bubble Disease

Being the leader of the free world is obviously a heady experience. Traffic halts when the guy sweeps by. On State of the Union night, lawmakers and robed jurists and military brass all leap to their feet in Pavlovian appreciation of every sound bite. Journalists jump when the commander in chief crooks a finger and ushers them to the front of his plane (OK, such invites don't come very often). So naturally it's easy to fall into a state of splendid isolation. Think Lyndon Johnson in '67-68. Think Richard Nixon in '73-74.
And think George W. Bush today, as evidenced by this flap over U.S. ports security (I wrote about the immediate political fallout today). Put aside the substantive arguments, pro and con, over the administration-approved deal that will put six key ports under the management of a firm owned by an Arab nation with a history of terrorism links. What's most glaring, right now, is the fact that Republicans outside the White House were caught flat-footed by the deal. They weren't alerted by the Bush team that such a deal might, um, look bad politically, and make it appear (in the brutal shorthand of today's politics) that the president was potentially compromising national security. So today the administration is out there virtually alone, dispatching its own people to spin the deal as best as they can, competing with the uproar.
It's that presidential bubble again, and perhaps the most damaging remarks in recent hours have come from Republicans who know something about smart communications. Witness Rich Galen, former press aide to Newt Gingrich and faithful Bush supporter. He said it best, in his own online column: This administration "has a continuing problem with understanding how these things will play in the public's mind..."
By the way, the White House is now saying that Bush didn't know about the deal before it was approved. It's hard to see how this is a good defense. A case can be made that it merely confirms the bubble disease.
I hope to explore, in much greater depth, the pitfalls of presidential bubbles in a weekend newspaper piece.