The whole purpose of political analysis is to look at the policies and actions of those in power, and at the scattered news events that flow from those, and the explanations of those events - the spin to defend or attack what was done - and try to sense some sort of pattern to it all. What is the current way most people are thinking of things now - the meme, or pervasive narrative? This is what in these pages has been called chasing the zeitgeist.
A friend in New York, in Albany actually, pointed out an item from Howard Fineman, from October 12, that catches a new stream of political narrative, a new meme, that has become part of the "national narrative" about how we got into the fix we're in. Fineman's item is The Conservative Crack Up, and carries the subhead, "The neocons develop an exit strategy - a political one."
The notion is this: President Bush may have no military exit strategy for Iraq, but the "neocons" who convinced him to go to war there have developed one of their own - a political one: Blame the Administration.
What they're saying?
Is this wishful thinking fro a moderate liberal? Maybe.
Their neo-Wilsonian theory is correct, they insist, but the execution was botched by a Bush team that has turned out to be incompetent, crony-filled, corrupt, unimaginative and weak over a wide range of issues.
The flight of the neocons - just read a recent Weekly Standard to see what I am talking about - is one of only many indications that the long-predicted "conservative crackup" is at hand.
Fineman discusses the history of the "neoconservative movement" from the founding of William F. Buckley's National Review fifty years ago, to its "coming of age" in the Reagan administration, to its zenith with Bush the Younger becoming president five years ago. We finally had a leadership in place that would have nothing to do with traditional diplomacy, would use our newly unchallengeable military to change governments around the world, and bring the American way of doing everything to the whole globe. We'd spread democracy, and unregulated free-market capitalism, and transform the planet. It seems Woodrow Wilson at the time didn't have a world where the was no power on earth that could challenge the United States - but with the fall of the Soviet Union who was left to get in out way?
This is a curious form of hyper-idealism, of course, but Fineman argues these imperial idealists - not his term but perhaps as good as any description - had to make a pact with the devil to get things done. He also does not us the phrase "pact with the devil," but he does give us this:
The problem is obvious. How do you hold these groups together in a tight alliance?
In 1973, Karl Rove met George W. Bush, and became the R2D2 and Luke Skywalker of Republican politics. At first, neither was plugged into "The Force" - the conservative movement. But over the years they learned how to use its power.
By the time Bush was in his second term as governor, laying the groundwork for his presidential run, he and Rove had gathered all of the often competing and sometimes contradictory strains of conservatism into one light beam. You could tell by the people they brought to Austin.
To tie down the religious conservatives, they nudged John Ashcroft out of the race and conducted a literal laying on of hands at the governor's mansion with leaders such as James Dobson.
For the libertarian anti-tax crowd, they brought in certified supply-sider Larry Lindsey as the top economic advisor.
For the traditional war hawks they brought in Paul Wolfowitz, among others, to get Bush up to speed on the world.
For the traditional corporate types - well, Bush had that taken care of on his own.
Well, you have to be very careful. And that is what is going sour now.
Take the religious conservatives:
Well, yes, they are unhappy.
The Harriet Miers nomination was the final insult. Religious conservatives have an inferiority complex in the Republican Party. In an interesting way, it's the same attitude that many African-Americans have had toward the Democratic Party over the years. They think that the Big Boys want their votes but not their presence or their full participation.
And what really frosts the religious types is that Bush evidently feels that he can only satisfy them by stealth - by nominating someone with absolutely no paper trail. It's an affront. And even though Dr. Dobson is on board - having been cajoled aboard by Rove - I don't sense that there is much enthusiasm for the enterprise out in Colorado Springs.
I expect that any GOP 2008 hopeful who wants evangelical support - people like Sam Brownback, Rick Santorum - and maybe even George Allen - will vote against Miers' confirmation in the Senate.
Can the administration turn to the CEO crowd, big business, and the corporations, to take up the slack and stand behind the president? Fineman says probably not, not after those hurricanes:
Okay then, what about all those traditional conservatives, those who believe in the smallest possible effective government, no deficits and no pork? Will they take up the slack and support the president?
For them, Bush's handling of Katrina was, and remains, a mortal embarrassment to their class, which Bush is supposed to have represented - at least to some extent.
These are people who believe in the Faith of Management - in anticipating problems and moving mass organizations. They also like to think of themselves as having a social conscience. And even if they don't, they are sensitive to world opinion.
The vivid images from the Superdome were just too much for these folks. Recently, a prominent Republican businessman, whom I saw in a typical CEO haunt, astonished me with the severity of his attacks on Bush's competence. And Bush had appointed this guy to a major position! Amazing.
The answer here is obvious. Fineman doesn't mention the exact figures, but this has been going around, the increases in discretionary spending over five successive budgets, for each two-term president increased spending going back forty years, adjusted for inflation -
Some people notice such things.
And as for the isolationists - Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobson and that crowd - they are most unhappy with an administration that won't police the borders and then called armed white citizens out hunting down wetbacks, these Minutemen, vigilantes. They feel betrayed too.
And of course the core neoconservatives ? Kristol and the University of Chicago gang at the Project for the New American Century (Chairman William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and founding members in 1997 - Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, Dick Cheney, Lewis Libby, William J. Bennett, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Ellen Bork, the wife of Robert Bork) are wondering who this guys is that they shoehorned into the presidency. The wanted the Middle East remade, and thus this country made safe, by forcing our flavor of democracy in Iraq, than that whole region, and then beyond. Their man is not doing the job, and Kristol often takes him to task for hinting at withdrawal in a few years. They are really unhappy.
Fineman says the only folks happy right now are the "supply-siders" - all those tax cuts for the rich and subsidies of major corporations are, to them, just fine. But that's small base, isn't it?
Look for this book next April: Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. The natives are restless.
Over at the New York Times Paul Krugman has a different spin on this. It wasn't just the conservatives who were fooled. We were all fooled. We didn't see what was right in front of our faces. (One is tempted to mutter, "Speak for yourself, White Man.") Here's the idea:
Howard Dean was judicious and realistic? The world turned upside down, but that's how things worked out.
Right now, with the Bush administration in meltdown on multiple issues, we're hearing a lot about President Bush's personal failings. But what happened to the commanding figure of yore, the heroic leader in the war on terror? The answer, of course, is that the commanding figure never existed: Mr. Bush is the same man he always was. All the character flaws that are now fodder for late-night humor were fully visible, for those willing to see them, during the 2000 campaign.
And President Bush the great leader is far from the only fictional character, bearing no resemblance to the real man, created by media images.
Read the speeches Howard Dean gave before the Iraq war, and compare them with Colin Powell's pro-war presentation to the U.N. Knowing what we know now, it's clear that one man was judicious and realistic, while the other was spinning crazy conspiracy theories. But somehow their labels got switched in the way they were presented to the public by the news media.
What about that "scream" that ended Dean's run for the presidency? That got all-to-wall coverage for a week or more. He was a madman. Bush was the calm and forceful leader at the eye of the storm, the man who would keep us safe.
That was the meme. And it changed.
But most people assumed that was the true picture then. That was the national narrative, "the real story." We were offered a snapshot of how things were. It was easy to understand. You didn't have to listen to what was actually being said and think about the issues. The "shorthand" worked better.
Krugman blames the press for the mistake, himself included -
That about wraps it up. The journalism stank, with reporters playing it safe to get better access later. Krugman flat out says they all knew the guy was doofus, but they wouldn't report what they knew, or what they thought. Too scary. Not prudent. Bad for the career, and the Bush administration played them like a fiddle.
Why does this happen? A large part of the answer is that the news business places great weight on "up close and personal" interviews with important people, largely because they're hard to get but also because they play well with the public. But such interviews are rarely revealing. The fact is that most people - myself included - are pretty bad at using personal impressions to judge character. Psychologists find, for example, that most people do little better than chance in distinguishing liars from truth-tellers.
More broadly, the big problem with political reporting based on character portraits is that there are no rules, no way for a reporter to be proved wrong. If a reporter tells you about the steely resolve of a politician who turns out to be ineffectual and unwilling to make hard choices, you've been misled, but not in a way that requires a formal correction.
And that makes it all too easy for coverage to be shaped by what reporters feel they can safely say, rather than what they actually think or know. Now that Mr. Bush's approval ratings are in the 30's, we're hearing about his coldness and bad temper, about how aides are afraid to tell him bad news. Does anyone think that journalists have only just discovered these personal characteristics?
Let's be frank: the Bush administration has made brilliant use of journalistic careerism. Those who wrote puff pieces about Mr. Bush and those around him have been rewarded with career-boosting access. Those who raised questions about his character found themselves under personal attack from the administration's proxies.
So NOW they tell us what they know? It's a little late.
But we have a new meme going forward.