(Charles Cutter will be taking a break from his weekly column for the remainder of this year in order to complete other writing projects. His column will resume on Friday, January 6, 2006.)
Many pundits believe we are now seeing serious cracks in the Republican Party’s monolithic control of our federal government. Many others feel this is simply wishful thinking; to them, an electorate that has accepted everything from Abu Ghraib and nonexistent WMDs in Iraq to the Patriot Act and tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy at home…well, let’s just say that it’s hard to gauge the public’s threshold of tolerance. What will be the tipping point at which a vast majority of Americans refuse to endorse the policies of Bush & Co.? Does such a tipping point even exist?
The optimists among us envision an American insurgency - a full and final rejection of the unprecedented corruption of the last five years. They see Democrats roaring back into control of both houses of Congress in 2006, launching criminal investigations into the current administration (both President and Vice President), with impeachment and removal from office to follow - and a Democratic Speaker of the House assuming the presidency in 2007.
It’s certainly within the realm of possibility; it would certainly be in the best interest of the nation. But how likely is it?
To get an idea, let’s take a closer look at the current spate of issues confronting the Republican Party.
First, George W. Bush. FEMA’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina provided a stark example of Mr. Bush’s policy of preferring political patronage over crisis management skills, leading to a further drop in Mr. Bush’s already falling approval ratings. Some were suggesting that this was the "tipping point," and the president’s numbers were in free-fall. Not so, according to CNN (9/29/05): "President Bush’s standing with the public improved over the previous week as he made a highly visible effort to manage the consequences of the second major hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast…" The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed an increase for Mr. Bush from 40% to 45%. This improvement is being attributed to the fact that Mr. Bush put on more of a show for Hurricane Rita than he had for Katrina; and certainly he benefited from the fact that a much weaker hurricane hit a much less vulnerable area. Perhaps the poll simply reflects a sense of relief that gasoline prices did not spike to $4-5 a gallon.
Second, Bill Frist. The Senate Majority Leader (R-TN) is being investigated for allegedly engaging in insider trading relating to his investments in "blind trusts" - specifically, regarding his suspiciously opportune sale of stock in HCA Inc., a company founded by Frist’s family. During a television interview in January 2003, Frist was asked if he should sell his HCA stock, to avoid conflict-of-interest issues regarding healthcare legislation. His response? "It should be understood that I put this into a blind trust. So far as I know, I own no HCA stock…it is illegal right now for me to know what the composition of those trusts are." In fact, Frist "was updated several times about his investments in blind trusts during 2002, the last time two weeks before he publicly denied any knowledge of what was in the accounts." (AP, 9/24/05). The article further notes that "Frist asked a trustee to sell all his HCA stock in June, near a 52-week price peak of $58.40 a share…Frist’s sale came about two weeks before the company issued a disappointing earnings forecast that drove its stock down almost 16% by mid-July…"
Since Mr. Frist was lying when he denied knowledge of the contents of his "blind trust," his further denial of insider trading allegations must also be suspect. The question must be asked, however: If these allegations are proven true, if Mr. Frist’s presidential aspirations for 2008 are shot down, does this really help the Democratic Party? Or does it simply improve the odds for another Republican presidential aspirant - Florida Governor Jeb Bush?
Third, we come to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX). After being indicted on a felony conspiracy charge, he stepped down (presumably temporarily) as House Majority Leader. His replacement is none other than Roy Blunt (R-MO), a one-time DeLay protégé who has since been perceived as a political threat to Mr. DeLay. If the Republicans are indeed worried about Mr. DeLay’s "sleaze factor" rubbing off on them, Mr. Blunt certainly offers no cleansing. In November 2002, just hours before a final House vote on a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Blunt tried to "quietly insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the 475-page bill…Blunt has received large campaign contributions from Philip Morris, his son works for the company in Missouri and [Blunt] has a close personal relationship with a Washington lobbyist for the firm." (Washington Post, 6/11/03).
Finally, there’s Iraq, where violence and chaos continues unabated. From USA Today (9/29/05): "Three suicide attackers exploded a string of near-simultaneous bombs in a mainly Shiite town Thursday, killing at least 60 people and wounding 70. Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed five U.S. soldiers…More than 140 people - including 13 U.S. service members - have been killed in the past four days." Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled that eighty-seven photos and four videotapes - previously unreleased documentation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib - must be released by the government. And, speaking of photos, a pornographic Web site states that "U.S. soldiers provided grisly photos of people killed in the Iraq war…in order to get free access to its sexual images. Many of the photos…are accompanied by captions making light of the corpses; for example one photo of a charred body was dubbed ‘Cooked Iraqi.’" (Reuters, 9/28/05).
On the other hand, the New York Times (9/17/05) reports on a poll they conducted along with CBS News: "8 in 10 Americans are very or somewhat concerned that the $5 billion being spent each month on the war in Iraq is draining away money that could be used in the United States…The poll also shows that nearly half of Americans say that the war is distracting President Bush from addressing problems at home…52 percent of people interviewed called for an immediate withdrawal…The poll also suggests that there is a widespread reluctance among Americans to make any further financial sacrifices to continue waging the war…"
If these numbers are to be believed, Americans are not turning away from the war because it was illegal, because it was brought about through lies, because it has slaughtered tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. They are turning away from the war because it costs too much money.
Ultimately, we must conclude that Bush, Frist and DeLay will be safe if they keep one thing in mind. For too many Americans, it’s not about morality, or values, or ethics.
It’s the economy, stupid.