Misconceptions about the upcoming congressional elections are rampant. The elections are not a referendum on the Bush presidency. No matter what their outcome, George W. Bush will remain in office—unless impeached and removed—until January 2009. Even if he were impeached and removed, we would have Dick Cheney as president. Who wants that?
Some of our states have means for recalling their governors. Parliamentary systems like England’s let the legislature remove the prime minister on a vote of “no confidence.” But our Constitution has no mechanism for removing a sitting head of state by popular or ordinary legislative action. So we’re stuck with Bush until 2009 no matter how we vote this fall.
The idea that this fall’s election is a way of sending Bush a message is equally absurd. He doesn’t read; he doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to hear. He proudly declares that he doesn’t govern by the polls and that he doesn’t read the newspapers. He gets all his information from within his own administration.
Ever since the Supreme Court made Bush president in 2000, he has known that he holds office by the thinnest of margins. Most politicians would have taken the hint and tried to be a “uniter, not a divider,” as Bush promised during his campaign. Not Bush. Again and again, no matter what the issue, he’s tried to use his narrow margin of victory or the threat of terrorism to impose a radical agenda on a reluctant country. He marches to a different drummer, and that drummer is his own. His response to failure is always the same: “stay the course” and grab as much power as you can.
If Bush receives a “message” this fall, he’ll do what he always does. If he likes the message, he’ll broadcast it widely to enhance his own radical agenda. If he doesn’t like it, he’ll ignore it or ridicule it. He’s very good at ridiculing criticism: remember “flip-flop,” the “Swift Boaters” and the “Defeatocrats”?
The notion that the election is a referendum on the War in Iraq is equally flawed. Just as our Constitution offers only impeachment for removing a leader before his term is up, it provides no practical way for Congress to take control of a foreign war. The President is the Commander in Chief, and the executive branch controls foreign policy. Even Donald Rumsfeld—who is now in close contest with Robert McNamara for the title of worst secretary of defense in our nation’s history—will remain securely in office as long as he has the president’s confidence.
Congress does have the power of the purse, but that power is a blunt instrument. Congress could, in theory, cut funds for the War in Iraq. But who would dare deprive our troops of the funds they “need to win”? A member’s vote to do so would be political suicide. That’s why no Congress has ever cut off funding for an ongoing foreign war—even during the decade-long fiasco in Vietnam. The best that Congress might do is gain some leverage over the executive by threatening to cut funding, but that threat would have to be credible to have any effect at all.
So if this fall’s election is not a referendum on the Bush presidency or the War in Iraq, what good is it? There is only one answer: it might provide some congressional oversight—some “adult supervision”—over this runaway administration. That goal is a modest one, but it is vital to our constitutional democracy.
We have just observed the fifth anniversary of September 11. According to the going cliché, that horrible attack “changed everything.” But the cliché is only half true. September 11 changed a lot, but so did President Bush, all by himself.
Nothing about September 11 compelled us to invade Iraq, let alone to ignore our top military leaders and send too few troops to do the job. Nothing about September 11 compelled the president to ignore the Geneva Conventions and the law of war, thereby condoning torture and tolerating or encouraging abuses at Abu Ghraib. Nothing about September 11 compelled the creation of military tribunals, which the Supreme Court has since found unlawful, without any oversight or approval by Congress. Nothing about September 11 forced the president to spy secretly on Americans’ private telephone conversations, with no effective congressional oversight until after the news media exposed his spying. Nothing compelled the president to set up a security system that has made air travel a nuisance for virtually all travelers, and which is now widely considered “cosmetic,” or to manage the Department of Homeland Security, in its first real test in Katrina, in a manner befitting a third-world country.
Yes, a lot has changed since September 11. We are less secure and less free at home. We have lost nearly as many troops in Iraq as we lost civilians in 9/11. Nearly 20,000 are wounded, many so badly that their lives will never be the same. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians lie dead. Our national prestige has suffered greatly, perhaps irrevocably, even among our allies. We have become objects of hatred and vilification throughout the Islamic world, even in nations that we used to consider moderate.
The world is indeed a very different place since September 11, but not all of the changes were inevitable consequences of that day. Many are the result of decisions made by our president, acting unilaterally, with congressional oversight that was lacking, or (in the case of Iraq) too little and too late.
So far the president’s leadership and management have produced two disasters unique in our nation’s history. We have started our first fully optional pre-emptive war, which has lasted over three years and is going badly. We have allowed a major city to be inundated by a hurricane of unremarkable size, and our rescue and cleanup efforts have been tragically ineffective, inefficient and disorganized—so much so that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still largely disaster areas over a year later.
No one can characterize these events as successes, at least not with a straight face. A real leader might accept responsibility and provide a clear and effective plan for future action.
Has Bush done that? He has never acknowledged the blunders he made in starting the war or in executing it. Instead, he has given us platitudes. Of Iraq he says we must fight them there so we won’t have to fight them here, ignoring the fact that now “they” are fighting each other in a low-grade civil war. Or, he says, the War in Iraq is part of the war in terror. Even if we believe that to be true, how do we win? He has offered no coherent plan, let alone a credible one. All he says is “stay the course” and let the commanders in the field decide—something that he didn’t do in deciding whether to go to war or how many troops to take.
As for Katrina, we got more of the same. We got lame excuses for a complete failure in our homeland, more than three years after September 11, of an agency set up for the purpose of responding to both terror attacks and natural disasters. The president did take verbal responsibility for the botched response to Katrina. But he has never laid out a coherent plan for recovery of the devastated areas, or a credible plan to keep the same thing from happening again. Levees hastily rebuilt to withstand a Category 3 storm are no answer to a new hurricane cycle of increasingly numerous Category 4s and 5s.
If you like this sort of “leadership” and want it to continue, then you should vote Republican this fall. Yet if this sort of “leadership” makes you uneasy, if you’d like to see someone other than Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld helping to make key decisions, then you have only one choice. You should vote Democratic for every congressional office, no matter who the candidates are.
Compared to the power of the executive, the power of Congress is not much, especially in time of war or natural disaster. A Democratic victory in one or both houses will not remove Bush from office and will not stop the dying in Iraq. Nor—if history and Bush’s character are any guide—will a Democratic victory send the Bush Administration a message that it will hear and heed.
All that changing congressional leadership can do is give our legislative branch the chance to impose some checks and balances on this runaway regime. That may not be much comfort, but it’s all we’ve got until 2009.