How they are all out-Bushing Bush
By Edward Luce
Published: March 10 2006 19:34 | Last updated: March 10 2006 19:34
President George W. Bush’s stinging defeat over his approval of Dubai Port World’s taking control of container operations at five American ports marks a new low in his fortunes. That a majority of Republicans ignored the White House’s pleas to show reason on what ought to have been a routine transaction speaks volumes about how much of a liability Mr Bush has become. Doubtless, Republicans will be looking for new ways to signal distance from Mr Bush between now and mid-term elections in November.
That is the good news for Mr Bush. The bad news is that many have concluded that he has already joined the likes of Lyndon B. Johnson and Calvin Coolidge as a long-distance waddler – condemned to being a lame duck well beyond November for the almost three years that remain of his term. Given Mr Bush’s low approval ratings – 34 per cent was the worst of the recent crop – it is tempting to agree. But it would not necessarily be correct. There is a more unsettling way of interpreting the events of the last few weeks. While congressmen from both parties were bidding to see who could most loudly condemn Mr Bush’s approval of the Dubai PW deal, they were quietly following his lead on a question of genuine significance to American freedom.
Last week, the Senate intelligence committee gave the administration a free pass to continue wiretapping an unspecified number of Americans without having secured a warrant beforehand. In exchange for calling off the threat of legislation to regulate a practice that many lawyers say is illegal, a group of senators would get monthly briefings from the White House about its surveillance activities.
Lame duck or otherwise, on this momentous question Congress decided not to clip Mr Bush’s wings. To recap: Mr Bush is unable to push through a simple transfer of ownership from one foreign company to another of a tiny fraction of America’s container terminal operations. But his security agents have congressional permission to continue interpreting a key aspect of America’s eavesdropping laws pretty much any way they choose. How to reconcile these two developments? The answer is public opinion.
One clear lesson from the Dubai PW controversy is that Democrats and Republicans alike chose to follow rather than to shape public opinion. According to the polls, up to
three-quarters of Americans opposed an Arab company operating US terminals. This number did not fall when they were informed that the Gulf-based company would have no say over security and screening operations in America’s ports.
Public opinion is also hawkish on illegal immigration – another issue on which Mr Bush finds himself on the wrong side of the fence. America has an estimated 11m illegal immigrants. In December the House of Representatives ignored Mr Bush’s request to set up a guest worker programme that would bring many of the illegals into the open when it passed a bill that focused on enforcement, such as building new detention centres and providing unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol America’s borders.
As with the Dubai PW vote in the House appropriations committee last week, in which only two of the 64 congressmen dissented, many Democrats supported the immigration bill. The issue is now before the Senate, which tends to be less prone to populism than the lower house. But even were the Senate to water down the bill, it is clear leaders of both parties lack the confidence to challenge the mood of xenophobia that exists outside Washington. Instead they are fuelling it.
In some respects the Democrats are now as guilty of stoking fears on national security as the Republicans. Their logic is impeccable. A majority of Americans believe there will be another large terrorist attack on American soil. Such is the depth of anxiety that one-fifth or more of Americans believe they will personally be victims of a future terrorist attack. This number has not budged in the last four and a half years.
Mr Bush has consistently received a much higher public trust rating on the war on terror than the Democrats. Without this – and without the constant manipulation of yellow and orange terror alert warnings at key moments in the political narrative – Mr Bush would almost certainly have lost the presidential race to John Kerry in 2004.
Mr Bush’s numbers are now in freefall, with some polls showing a majority no longer trusts him on this pivotal issue. In other words, the Democrats have found an effective way of neutralising their most persistent electoral liability: they are out-Bushing Mr Bush.
It is easy to see why key Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have adopted this strategy. It is easy also to see why their Republican counterparts are following suit. As Peter King, the Republican representative for New York, said last week: “We are not going to allow the Democrats get to the right of us on this issue.” This left Mr Bush holding the candle for the left, as it were. It is to be hoped that this was a uniquely unusual moment. But we should not bank on it. The Democrats are hungry for victory.