I remain unconvinced that the fate of the free world rests on who manages a percentage of our ports, but I think that Bush’s handling of the issue reveals something at least as important.
About the controversy, last night on Savage’s show a veteran of port operations seemed the opposite of concerned, largely because 1) the unions control practically everything that happens at our ports, regardless of who does the managing, and 2) port security protocols are already a matter of public knowledge so there’s not much to steal. I didn’t hear the end so I can’t say whether Savage ended up changing his position. Meanwhile Kevin Drum has joined the non-outraged coalition of him and, as far as I can tell, Glenn Greenwald. [Update: UAE co-owned BCCI? Jeebus. That’ll bump my concern up a few notches.]
What strikes me more than the mortal danger to our republic is the stark way that this highlights the president’s deficiencies as a leader. Josh Marshall touches on this, and I would only add that if this deal is as ordinary as some claim then the president should be able to sell it to his country. A majority in both houses would be perfectly happy to get his back politically, as long as he gave them some time for coordination. Instead he basically blindsided them. Savage unsurprisingly took credit for getting this story out about a week and a half ago, but wherever it came from it seems like most Republican politicians heard about it for the first time when livid constituents began clogging their phone lines. Putting your allies in a position of panicked damage-control isn’t a great way to build support. Rumsfeld’s story is even stranger – he hadn’t heard about the deal until this weekend, even though he sat on the board that unanimously approved the decision. Seriously? There’s another reason why some have argued that the few who survived the 2005 cabinet axe should have been the first to go.
If this thing really isn’t such a big deal, as Drum and Savage’s caller allege, then it’s possible that the administration simply didn’t pay much attention to it themselves until it blew up in their faces. If so the leadership test becomes a question of reassuring freaked-out allies rather than laying the groundwork for a potentially-controversial policy. It seems like that’s the case here, considering that damage control didn’t set in at the White House until most of Congress already had hordes of seething constituents to deal with. Coburn or Frist might love to get the president’s back in normal circumstances, but if they don’t make some gesture here home-state editorials, local talk radio and water-cooler chat will paint them as chumps.
Like a shell-shocked quarterback Bush called the same play that got him an easy touchdown on the first possession, a few first downs on the second possession and a series of embarrassing sacks ever since. He dug in his heels, rejected compromise and painted the ‘opposition’ as morally compromised. At an earlier time the policy was Iraq and the opposition was unpatriotic. Later the policy was Harriet Miers and the opposition hated women. Now it’s port security and the opposition isn’t serious about protecting America. If this is your first time on the pointed end of the Bush slime machine, welcome to the party. Stretching the football analogy, let me point out that in supervising the Executive branch Congress basically acts as the head coach, and the head coach has spent most of this game drinking at Applebees. There are remedies to a quarterback making a series of retarded calls but they only work when the coach is in the stadium.
It’s not like Bush doesn’t have options. How about a blue-ribbon commission? Everbody loves blue-ribbon commissions. You can usually stack them with ringers, it looks enough like you care to give editorial writers something else to write about and by the time the report comes out nobody cares anymore. Even the heck-blasted 9/11 commission, the mother of all blue-ribbon commissions, had a good number of its recommendations ignored. Nobody cares. Alternatively Bush could suspend the decision to allow time for debate, which would give him time to twist some arms and recalibrate the noise machine. If Drum and Savage’s caller are right then more time would also allow the real, non-alarming facts to percolate into the public consciousness so that the decision doesn’t look rushed and blockheaded.
The veto threat seems like the worst of all possible choices. Basically it says ‘trust me, and if you don’t trust me then fuck you.’ He’s not demanding loyalty so much as fealty. If there’s a looming showdown between executive and legislative powers as some suggest then the gesture also says ‘bring it on,’ which only helps the Republican party in an electroshock therapy sort of way. The NSA scandal, for example, basically concerns whether Congress has the power to supervise the Executive branch in any meaningful way. Historically bad polls have amplified the administration’s lame-duckness, making life particularly miserable for blue- and purple-state Republicans up for reelection. Take into account the general theory that government powers auto-correct their own imbalances and it seems like an even poorer choice for the president to pick his fight over a battle that he’s almost certain to lose.
If there’s any take-home message here it’s that given the president’s personality I don’t see why anybody should be surprised. He’s an incurious person prone to making hasty decisions and then sticking to them no matter what comes. He equates dissent with disloyalty and viscerally hates disloyalty. It’s been said that the executive branch gradually changes to reflect the president’s personality, which I think is what you see here. Decision-makers who might potentially dissent are simply shut out of the process. If you’ve ever asked whether ‘decisiveness’ and ‘resolve’ could possibly have a downside, here it is.