Monday, September 17, 2007

Bush Has Squandered Republican Claims to Superiority on Security and the Economy

Republicans can be trusted with the country's defense and economy.

You may not agree with that statement (I know I certainly don't), but for a very long period of time it was an oft-repeated sentiment and, many would argue, the prevailing view in the United States. It was also an effective idea for the Republicans, who managed to win five of the six presidential elections held between 1968 and 1988. It took the perfect storm of Watergate and a massive recession to hand the Democrats their one win, in 1976. You can also argue that the idea that Republicans handle security better helped Bush to victory in 2004 while the U.S. was engaged in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the electorate had started to see the holes in the president's cloak of leadership.

Leave it to George W. Bush to destroy the long-held edge the Republicans maintained in the public's mind on these two important issues. (He has blundered virtually everything else he has touched, so why should this issue be any different?)

An August 2007 Rasmussen poll found that more Americans trust the Democrats with the economy than the Republicans (42% to 41%), and the Democrats ranked only one percentage point behind the GOP on the issue of national security and the "war on terror" (44% to 43%). Democrats were also preferred on the Iraq issue, 44% to 40%.

If you had told a Republican in 1984 that the GOP was within a percentage point of the Democrats on the economy and defense, he would have thought you had rejected the first lady's advice to just say "no." But what our skinny-tied, feathered-haired Republican friend would not have had any way of knowing is that the Republicans would send to the White House a man who has excelled at incompetence.

The Bush presidency has featured one stupendous blunder after another, especially in the area of national security. History will regard Bush's decision to remove resources from Afghanistan and tie up a majority of the country's military capability in a voluntary war that had nothing to do with the war against Islamic fundamentalism (Iraq was ruled by a dictator who was a strict secularist) as completely against any thoughtful logic.

And you can build that argument pretty well only citing the thoughts of his fellow Republicans.

On Friday's episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher," Sen. Chuck Hegel (R-Neb.) called Iraq the biggest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history. On Sunday's "Meet the Press," the central argument of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as to why the U.S. should continue the surge was that Bush's handling of the war was horrible, and the current policy should have been put into place years ago and needs time to work. He had no qualms about saying that the war in Iraq "was very badly mismanaged by the former secretary of defense and this administration." He also kept trying to run down the proposals of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by tarring them with the ultimate insult -- that they were a continuation of the Bush policy. (You can read the transcript of the whole interview here.)

With Al-Qaeda using the war in Iraq as a sensationally successful recruiting tool, the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, and the government in Iraq failing to meet even the most basic goals of making progress toward political reconciliation, it is virtually universally accepted that Bush completely bungled the nation's security policy after the initial gains in Afghanistan.

If Bush thought he could sit back and coast on the success of the economy, in the last few weeks he has found himself under siege on this front, too. The collapse of the subprime mortgage market has caused a stock market downturn and credit crunch. A Yahoo!/AP article from September 7 reported that for the first time in four years, employers cut jobs, with 4,000 positions lost in August, out of fear of an upcoming recession.

Again, the complaints about Bush's handling of the economy have not just been from Democrats. In his new book and in an interview on "60 Minutes," former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a Republican who testified to Congress early in Bush's first term supporting the president's proposed tax cuts (or, more accurately, the general idea of tax cuts), said that the administration was "wrong" for not adjusting the tax cuts after the surplus evaporated. Greenspan blames Bush for not cutting spending, leading to the largest deficits since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president.

See, it's not just Democrats who accuse Bush of being stubborn to a fault.

Greenspan also spoke against Bush's Iraq policy, saying in his book, according to a New York Times article, that he is "saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

Thanks to Bush's stubbornness and incompetence, Republicans no longer have the presumptive edge with the American people on the issues of security and the economy. Democrats can now compete on a level playing field, allowing the electorate to judge which set of policies would be better for the country. Does that mean the Democrats will win the presidency and retain Congress in 2008? Hardly. It's still up to the party to articulate plans that will appeal to the voters. But the chance is there, should they decide to take it. And they have an unlikely person to thank for the opportunity.