A Pox on Both Their Houses
by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs
You would think that a President with approval ratings in the low thirties and an inner circle of advisors who have headed for the Texas hills would be contrite and in the mood for compromise. You would think that a President with a war that has taken almost 4,000 American lives, severely injured several tens of thousands more, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and dislocated millions more, a war that nearly seventy percent of American voters want ended, a war that is running up a tab of $3 billion per week, you would think that such a President might lose a bit of his swagger. But you would be wrong.
Most Presidents, as they enter the last fifteen months of their Constitutionally-limited term, focus on creating an enduring legacy. But if President Bush is focusing on legacy, he’s fooled me and everyone else in Washington.
Whether it’s supreme self-confidence, a skin that is thicker than rawhide or just plain obstinacy, the President seems bent on toughing out his waning days in office without giving an inch on policy, budgetary priorities or ideology. About the only place President Bush seems to have gotten religion is putting a lid on spending of the domestic sort.
And how have the Democrats responded? You might think that a party that has regained control of Congress after more than a decade in the political boondocks would show some spunk. But, judging by the polls, American voters think the Democrats spunkless. Now that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is gone, about the only Washington institution that gets lower ratings than the White House is Congress, which barely cracks 20 percent approval in the latest surveys.
Main Street seems to have had it with both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. President Bush isn’t running again, but all 435 House seats and one third of the Senate seats will be up for grabs in 2008. And if voters break with precedent and assign blame to their own members of Congress, more than a few incumbents could be in trouble.
For science, there’s a certain irony in the public’s bashing of Washington at this very juncture. It comes at a time when both political parties and both branches of government have finally recognized that math, science and engineering are the foundations of American prosperity and security and of global sustainability.
It would be more than a great pity if governmental paralysis and public outrage about the institutions of government conspire to derail the federal science education and research initiatives and the dollars they require. It would be a tragedy if the policies and authorizations in the America COMPETES Act–which the President signed into law on August 9 after it had passed the Senate by unanimous consent and had garnered 367 House votes–were still-born in their implementation.
But as the first session of the 110th Congress winds down, the Senate is struggling to find the necessary 60 votes it needs to pass any of its pending bills; Democrats in both chambers remain divided on Iraq and energy policy; and House and Senate conferees are haggling over spending priorities.
The President’s threatened veto of any spending bill that exceeds his budgetary request has only served to poison the atmosphere further. The White House argues that federal deficits have spiraled out of control and that Congress must trim $21 billion in spending on domestic discretionary programs to avoid the vetoes.
Democrats disdainfully say that the President’s concern over deficits has a hollow ring, since Republicans controlled the White House and Congress for most of the last six years during which spending ballooned. And they note that President Bush has asked Congress for almost $200 billion in supplemental war spending for Iraq and Afghanistan this year, ten times the amount he is asking Congress to trim from other federal programs.
Add to this a looming economic recession, the implosion of several hefty hedge funds, a frightening growth in mortgage foreclosures, a potentially crippling credit crunch and partisan bickering over tax restructuring and you have the makings of an astounding political storm.
Should Congress and the White House fail to resolve their differences over spending and should the federal government be forced to shut down, each side is betting that the other side will receive the majority of the public’s scorn.
In fact, both sides could both be wrong. The public has little tolerance left for Beltway blame, bumbling and bombast and could simply decide to vote for a new beginning in 2008. Michael Bloomberg, are you listening?