Review of the year: Bush's America

A lame duck, presiding over a lost cause
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The Independent US

Three years ago the US brought regime change in Iraq. Now Iraq has returned the favour. George W Bush, to the dismay of much of the world, could remain President of the United States until 20 January 2009. But in last month's mid-term elections, his Republican Party surrendered control of both House and Senate to the Democrats for the first time in a dozen years - the term "lame duck" does scant justice to the extent to which Bush has been diminished. In each case the prime reason was the President's disastrous war.

It was no ordinary defeat on 7 November. In the House, where the Democrats made a net gain of 29 seats, the losses were limited by a decade of redrawing (more politely, gerrymandering) of congressional districts that has greatly increased the number of rock-safe seats for both parties. But psychologically it was a landslide to match 1994, when the Republicans captured a net 52 House seats to sweep the Democrats from power. In the Senate the outcome was even more stunning - the Democrats made a net gain of six seats, larger than even most partisans had dared hope, lifting the party to a 51-49 majority. The elections had been a perfect storm, where domestic incompetence, the stain of corruption and foreign policy failure collided to change the face of US politics, perhaps for many years. First and foremost among the reasons was Iraq.

In 2004 voters gave Bush the benefit of the doubt. This time, though, their patience ran out - at the incompetence and arrogance of power and its refusal to face facts, its inability to take responsibility for the mistakes it made, or to recognise the damage inflicted on the reputation and moral authority of the US in the wider world.

Americans now understand they have been led into a war apparently without end. The Iraq debacle was best summed up by retired general Anthony Zinni, arguably the sharpest strategic thinker produced by the US military in recent times: "We made a mess in the worst possible place we could have made a mess." Barring a miracle, Iraq will surely go down as one of the greatest, even the greatest, foreign policy blunder in the country's history.

America has been here before. Ronald Reagan in 1986, and Bill Clinton in 1994, were sitting presidents whose parties took a mid-term hammering. Both also suffered huge second-term embarrassments: the Iran-Contra affair in the case of Reagan, the Monica Lewinsky scandal for Clinton. But both recovered and left office amid high popularity.

Bush, however, is in a different position. His approval rating is around 35 per cent, with little prospect of improvement. The US is trapped in the no-man's land that is Antonio Gramsci's definition of a crisis, "When the old is dead and the new cannot be born" (or not until that January inauguration day two years hence).

The president who most closely resembles Bush is Lyndon Johnson, who had his own unpopular and ever more obviously unwinnable war. Vietnam prompted LBJ not to run for office again. Johnson made his announcement on 31 March 1968, and within barely seven months the country had a new president. George W Bush will be in the Oval Office until 2009, facing a hostile Congress and no longer in command of even his own party.

In retrospect, two dates stand out. The first is 7 November. Within 24 hours Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary who had been the lightning rod for the war, was forced to resign. Many Republicans claimed that had he gone a month earlier, the Senate at least could have been saved.

Characteristically, Rumsfeld was unyielding to the last. The air positively crackled in the Oval Office as President Bush stood between the outgoing Pentagon chief and the man chosen to replace him, the former CIA director Robert Gates. The fault was not his, Rumsfeld made clear. It was the American people who had so rebuked him at the ballot box - who had failed to understand what the war was about.

The second date was 6 December. Tony Blair had just arrived for a miserable summit and a press conference at which Bush was asked whether he actually understood what was happening in Iraq. More pertinent were two other events that day. In the morning, the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel headed by former secretary of state James Baker, went to the White House to deliver its damning verdict on the Iraq mess. Hours later, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress overwhelmingly approved Gates as the new Defense Secretary, by 95 votes to two.

The extent to which Iraq policy will change under Gates is as yet unclear. But the change in style was instant. Gone was the brusque, domineering Rumsfeld, unheeding of advice, ever certain he was right. In had come the crafty Gates, lower key and more cerebral, and like Baker an exponent of the "realist" school of foreign policy associated with President Bush the father. Bush the son, who had used the "war on terror" to greatly expand presidential powers and prerogatives, seemed by the year's end to have lost control of events - even inside his own administration.

For along with the "realists" that Bush junior once despised, leaks too have returned to Washington. For his first five years, Bush ran the tightest presidential ship in memory. But the floodgates have opened, first in a series of books, one of which revealed the existence of a secret programme of government eavesdropping without warrants, introduced in the name of the "war on terror". Then within the space of less than a week, The New York Times chalked up a couple of blockbusters. First it obtained a memo by Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, expressing grave doubts about Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister whom the administration effusively backed in public. Then it published a secret memo on the war from Rumsfeld in his final weeks at the Pentagon, whose dismal tone was utterly at variance with his upbeat public statements. In the US as everywhere, a leaking government is a sinking government.

But the Republican meltdown at the polls is not fully explained by either Iraq or the other inadequacies of a President ranked by some historians as the worst ever. This disaster has been a long time in the making - perhaps from the day the swaggering Newt Gingrich led his troops to victory in the Congressional elections of November 1994. The Republicans won then because Democrats had grown corrupt, lazy and out of touch after 40-odd years of power. It took them barely a decade to fall into the same trap.

The 109th Congress, which wrapped up its business on 9 December, must rank among the worst ever. The House of Representatives sat for just 102 days in 2006, fewer even than the "do-nothing Congress" of 1948. Though the Republican Party controlled both the White House and Capitol Hill, it failed in its most elementary constitutional duty by passing only two of the 12 bills funding the federal government in the current fiscal year. Much of its time was spent not on matters of concern to ordinary Americans, such as social security or immigration reform, but on symbolic issues such as the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and flag-burning. Unsurprisingly, Congress' approval rating is now even lower than that of the President. Equally unsurprisingly, the Republicans were blamed.

Then there were the scandals: first and foremost the one centred on the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, he of the Indian tribes rip-off and the all-expenses-paid golfing trips to St Andrews for Republican pals on the Hill. In 2005, the Abramoff connection forced the once-mighty House majority leader Tom DeLay to resign. This year Bob Ney, a senior Ohio congressman, pleaded guilty to influence-peddling charges and faces two years or more in jail when he is sentenced next month.

Separately, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a flamboyant Republican congressman from California and born-again Christian, was jailed for eight years in March for taking over $2m in bribes from defence contractors. For many voters the case summed up the hypocrisy of politics as practiced by the type of Republican who wears religion on his sleeve. That impression was only confirmed by the devastating Mark Foley scandal that broke five weeks before the vote.

Foley was a senior Florida Republican who had made his name on Capitol Hill as an opponent of child pornography and as chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. It then emerged that for years Foley had been an exploiter himself, sending sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to young men he had known when they were teenage congressional pages. It further emerged that the Republican leadership had been given at least some idea of Foley's predatory behaviour as long ago as 2003.

The scandal deeply upset many Christian conservatives, one of the most important Republican constituencies, and may have kept some away from the polls on 7 November. And if that were not enough, a former Bush official wrote a book alleging, inter alia, that White House aides privately mocked the Christian right, even as they made a fuss of them in public.

Last but not least are the deepening ideological divides within Republican ranks. The party has long been a broad church - but now the side walls are so far apart that the roof is falling in.

Iraq, of course, is a part of the problem. The descent into civil war has deepened the rift between the "realists" and the discredited neo-conservatives who have made the foreign-policy running under Bush. It has also emboldened the isolationist, fortress-America wing of the party that loathes all foreign entanglements. The latter has been on one side of the bitterly fought immigration issue, pitting it against pro-business Republicans (among them President Bush) who favour a normalisation of the process and offering a path to citizenship to millions who have come to the US illegally.

Fiscal conservatives - another traditional Republican constituency - are appalled at the huge trade and budget deficits run by this administration. Libertarians who want the government to confine itself to government were horrified by the way in which the leadership and the White House injected themselves into Terry Schiavo's right-to-die legal case, a blatant act of pandering to the religious right. In 2006 Karl Rove, Bush's erstwhile electoral magician, gambled on getting out the Republican base. But he foundered on the question: which base? By the time voting day arrived, all that was required of Democrats was not to be Republicans.

Maybe voters on 7 November registered their dislike of the one-party control of the executive and legislature that had eroded the checks and balances vital to the US system of government - a failure most notable in the oversight of the Iraq war. In fact, Congress may actually have edged rightward last month. Many of the Republicans who lost were moderates, while some newly elected Democrats are little different from those they defeated. America remains conservative, and could return a Republican Congress in 2008, especially if the new Democrats on Capitol Hill fail to deliver. Far short of the veto-overturning majority of two-thirds in either House or Senate, the incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to strike deals with the President if any significant legislation is to pass.

Equally possibly, however, American politics may be undergoing one of its twice- or three-times-in-a-century shifts. A Republican era of dominance that began in the late 1960s may be drawing to an end. The mid-term results may not have been merely a massive vote of no confidence in the President. They suggest that the once "natural majority" party is being penned back to the south and west. The Democrats not only own the two coasts, but are gaining ground in the Midwest and the fast-growing south-west. If so, then Iraq may have precipitated not just regime change in the US, but a quiet generational political revolution as well.