White House liar tells the truth

June 6, 2008

A one-time White House insider describes the disastrous policies of the Bush years, and how they were covered up by deception and delusion.

THE REACTION to the former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's memoir What Happened is a measure of how far the Bush White House's public esteem has fallen. Outside the White House inner circle and old hacks like former Sen. Bob Dole (who told McClellan that he was a "loathsome creature"), few came to the administration's defense.

Even the White House seemed to be going through the motions. The talking points obviously went out: leading administration figures were "sad" and "puzzled" about McClellan's book. And they all concluded that this "wasn't the Scott they knew."

But no one really disputed the substance of McClellan's allegations that the Bush administration manipulated the press and lied the U.S. into war in Iraq. Or that the campaign to discredit former ambassador Joe Wilson by outing his CIA agent wife, Valerie Plame, went to the highest reaches of the administration. Or that the administration was wholly out of touch when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

It's almost as if the White House knew it couldn't spin these points away, so it didn't even try. Instead, in true fashion, it attacked the messenger.

And while the message is largely information we already know, its confirmation by a one-time White House insider cements the narrative of the Bush years as ones of disastrous policies, covered up with deception and delusion.

This fact will have a lasting impact on the Republican Party long after Scott McClellan disappears from the front pages. It is one of the most important factors in why the Republicans have an uphill battle to hold onto the White House in November.

Despite the fact that today's opinion polls and media predictions of Electoral College votes show a close race in the presidential contest between John McCain and Barack Obama, McClellan's book should remind us that McCain--an unabashed champion of the war McClellan says was sold on lies and delusions--is running against a huge headwind.

McCain is tying himself to the central policy of the most unpopular president in polling history. The fact that springtime opinion polls show a close race in November should be cold comfort to the Republicans, as almost all political energy and public attention has been focused on the soon-to-resolved Democratic race. If McCain is this close when the public hasn't even focused on his embrace of the majority of the Bush agenda, that closeness may itself be illusory.

Scott McClellan was the mouthpiece of the Bush White House
Scott McClellan was the mouthpiece of the Bush White House

AFTER TAKING Congress in 1994 and the presidency in 2000, the Republicans managed to exert a pull on politics to the right that was largely successful, despite governing with fairly slim majorities in the Congress.

Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and won only 51.1 percent in 2004, the narrowest re-election victory of a president since 1916. These were hardly ringing endorsements of Republican tax cuts for the rich, eternal war and corporate welfare from the majority of the American public.

With the brief exception of the period following the September 11, 2001, attacks through the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration has been unpopular with large sections of the public.

Before September 11, in fact, the administration was already being described as aimless and failed. Yet the Republican machine was extremely effective in pushing through its right-wing agenda--despite popular opposition or indifference to the issues that excite the GOP's conservative "base."

Political scientists have documented the many ways that the Republicans relied on a compliant media, parliamentary maneuvering, huge campaign contributions, stacking government agencies with loyalists, ruthless gerrymandering to improve GOP election prospects, smash-mouth political campaigning, and other tactics that confident political parties employ.

But the GOP today is not a confident political party, and it can't rely on these tactics to preserve its hold.

Some disappeared with the loss of Congress in 2006. Campaign contributions have largely migrated to the new Democratic majority, and parliamentary maneuvering has been reduced to blocking some Democratic initiatives. GOP loyalists in government agencies are just as likely to be polishing their resumes as they are to be looking out for the party's interests.

Even the compliant media--which McClellan critiques for having let the administration get away with its marketing campaign for the Iraq war--can't be counted in the Republican camp today.

The amount of corporate money that has flowed to the Democratic side this election season shows that a large segment of Corporate America, including media bosses, has already decided that the Democrats will win. When the media's owners decide which of the two corporate candidates they support, their media outlets tend to reflect that.

Aggressive political campaigning is still available to the Republicans. Their operatives are gearing up for a season of attacking Obama for his choice of churches, his lack of military service, his sometimes neglect to wear a flag lapel and a host of other trivialities.

Will it work? With a campaign that will feature subterranean appeals to racism, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility.

But in an environment where a failed administration leads a failed war, where all but the richest Americans face economic distress, and where opinion polls show what appears to be a long-term evolution away from the type of politics and agenda that the GOP has championed for three decades, a Republican win in November is less likely than a Democratic sweep.

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