Monday, April 16, 2007

"I think we are making progress," and other bloviations from the Cheney bubble

Bob Schieffer of CBS: “Does this administration have a credibility problem?”
Vice President Cheney: “I don’t think so, Bob.”

One would think that if the Bush administration was really interested in reconnecting with the American public, it would put somebody on the air besides Dick Cheney. At this point, Don Imus could probably do a better job.

Cheney’s appearance yesterday on Face the Nation was predictable in most respects. Indeed, it would be waste of cyberspace to critique it at length, given the fact that this is the same guy who insisted that we would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq (2003); that the insurgency was in its “last throes” (2005); and that Saddam Hussein’s agents had personally met with 9/11 terrorist leader Mohammed Atta (December 2001, and again in 2004, even after the 9/11 Commission concluded that no such meeting had occurred). Even the pollsters at Fox News are reporting a national thumbs-down verdict on Cheney; in their latest survey, only 34 percent of Americans rate him favorably – his worst showing ever, dating back to the first Fox soundings in July of 2000.

Nevertheless, President Bush’s backstage consigliere did mutter a few new lines that will no doubt look even more embarrassing six months from now. When Cheney was specifically asked about the latest setbacks in Iraq – the massive anti-American protests that were staged last Monday, on the fourth-anniversary of Baghdad’s “liberation”; the Green Zone bomb in the Parliament cafeteria; the two big bombs that were exploded on Saturday (not to mention the Sunday bombs that killed 45 Iraqis, and the Sunday news that two Shiite Cabinet members had quit the government) – Cheney shrugged everything off and said:

“I think we are making progress.”

Also noteworthy was Cheney’s response to the federal prosecutor purge scandal. In the latest document dump by the Justice Department, last Friday, a little gem was unearthed. It turns out that Kyle Sampson, attorney general Alberto Gonzales’s chief of staff, had started lining up successors for the targeted prosecutors back in January 2006 – thereby contradicting his sworn statements to Congress last month, when he testified that there had been no organized plan to fire the prosecutors and replace them with pre-designated ideologically loyal Bushies. Meanwhile, Gonzales is slated to testify tomorrow on Capitol Hill, and will have to explain why he first claimed that he had never attended a purge meeting, when in fact documents now show that, last Nov. 27, he most certainly did.

Schieffer wondered aloud why anyone would believe that Gonzales has a firm grasp on what’s going on in his own Justice Department. Cheney’s response: “(Gonzales) is a good man. I have every confidence in him. The president has every confidence in him.”

This was also at the point in the interview when Cheney insisted that the Bush administration does not have a credibility problem. He elaborated: “Obviously, we’ve got issues we need to work through…You do the best you can with what you’ve got.” And in the end, he said, the Bush track record “will stand up well to scrutiny.”

In particular, he is referring to Iraq (hard as that may be to believe). He apparently believes that he and Bush still have the upper hand, politically speaking, in the forthcoming tussle with the Democratic Congress over the future of that conflict. Democratic leaders plan to meet this week with Bush, and insist on their troop withdrawal timeline as a precondition for approving the next round of war money. Bush and Cheney view the Democrats as “irresponsible” (an ironic use of the word, given the way that Bush and Cheney have waged this war, and the arguments they used to launch it), but Cheney’s own language is actually harsher than that.

In a little-noticed speech last Friday, sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Cheney argued that the Democrats have taken “a hard left turn,” toward the “abandonment and retreat” of the early 1970s – as evidenced, he said, by their congressional support for an Iraq withdrawal timetable. But his argument only serves to demonstrate, yet again, that he is out of touch with American public opinion – because, far from taking a hard left turn, the Democrats are taking a stance that precisely mirrors centrist sentiment in the electorate.

As I’ve noted here before, all the polls reflect this. And in the latest CBS News poll released this weekend, 57 percent of Americans said they support a withdrawal timetable. When the question was asked another way, 61 percent said they favor war funding only for a limited time. On yet another question, 60 percent favor decreasing the number of troops, or removing them all. And, as perhaps the best measure of centrist sentiment, 74 percent of independent voters now say that Bush is mishandling the war.

These kinds of figures would never deter Cheney, of course, but he still doesn’t think that the GOP defeat last November was a big deal. In his Heritage speech on Friday, he said this: “It was, in retrospect, a narrow victory. A shift of only 3600 votes would have kept the Senate in Republican hands, and a shift of fewer than 100,000 votes would have maintained Republican control of the House of Representatives.”

Well, if we want to talk about a “narrow victory,” we might simply observe that Cheney owes his job to the fact that Democratic voters in Palm Beach County were flummoxed by the butterfly ballot, and that a one-vote Supreme Court majority dragged him and Bush across the finish line. But anyone can play the “if only” game. The slam-dunk refutation to Cheney’s argument can be found in the fine print of the ’06 vote:

In the aggregate tally of all contested House elections, the Democrats won 53 percent of the national vote, the Republicans only 46.4 percent. That is actually a more decisive spread than the Republicans enjoyed when they took the House in the “revolution” of 1994. (The tally that year was GOP 52.9 percent, Democrats 46.9 percent.) Moreover, in 2006, the GOP failed to capture a single Democratic seat; the GOP hadn’t failed in that fashion since the House elections of 1948.

And totaling all the Senate races, the spread was even larger: the Democrats took 53.8 percent of the national vote, while the GOP took 42.4 percent – a particularly large asymmetry, given the fact that so many of the Democratic triumphs occurred in red states (GOP incumbents were unseated in Virginia, Montana, Missouri, and Ohio). This is in stark contrast to the ’02 Senate midterm elections, when the GOP won 51.3 percent of the national vote, the Democrats only 44.7 percent. To anyone but Dick Cheney, the ’06 Democratic Senate victory can be attributed to a nine-point swing in the vote, which hardly fits the description of “narrow.”

And the ’06 House and Senate exit polls demonstrate why Cheney’s party lost so decisively: Independent voters (again, the center of the electorate) broke for the Democrats by 59 to 41 percent.

But if Cheney truly believes that he and Bush represent the center, and that the Democrats are merely doing the bidding of the “hard left,” perhaps he should take that same Friday speech and deliver it in front of a cross-section of citizens, a moderate audience in a swing state. At least that way, he’d see whether the applause lines that galvanized the Heritage Foundation really work outside the bubble. More likely, middle-of-the-roaders would leave the arena asking themselves the same question that Bob Schieffer articulated yesterday:

“Why should people believe you now, when so many times, in the past, statements from this administration have proved to be incorrect?”


By the way, before Cheney complains too much about how the Bush team is under fire from "the hard left," he might want to check in with his fellow conservatives who are now demanding that attorney general Gonzales quit his job. In a letter signed by members of the newly-formed American Freedom Agenda - the members include David Keene, chairman of the grassroots American Conservative Union, and veteran conservative fundraiser/activist Richard Viguerie - Gonzales is dismissed as "an unsuitable steward of the law."

They cite the prosecutor purge scandal ("He has engendered the suspicion that partisan politics trumps evenhanded law enforcement in the Department of Justice"), but, more generally, they contend that "Mr. Gonzales has presided over an unprecedented crippling of the Constitution's time-honored checks and balances. He has brought rule of law into disrepute, and debased honesty as the coin of the realm."

But since Gonzales is merely an instrument of his White House masters, what does that say about their debasement of honesty?