The Has-been

The Whig Factor

Tyrant or lapdog? History debates what Dubya stands for.

Thursday, Mar. 2, 2006

Thursday, Mar. 2, 2006

Great American Zeroes: Astute reader Kyle Sammin of Philadelphia points out that George Bush, the emperor who has no vetoes, may be in a class by himself. Of the last four presidents before Bush who never vetoed a bill, none served a full term, and three died in office: James Garfield, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor. The fourth, Millard Fillmore, served out Taylor’s term.

But as Sammin points out, only Garfield’s vetoes stopped for death. Sammin may be the first historian to ask the question, “What if William Henry Harrison had lived?” His conclusion: Harrison, Taylor, and Fillmore could have lived to be 100 and still never vetoed a bill. All three were Whigs, who opposed the veto on principle and believed Congress should run the show.

Tippecanoe may have been a war hero, but even if he hadn’t died a month after his inauguration, he would have been a conscientious objector on the veto. Sammin explains:

The Whig party was formed to combat the “abuses” of the first Imperial President, Andrew Jackson. They were incensed especially by Jackson’s veto of a bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States. As such, they believed that a President should never veto a bill unless he believed it to be unconstitutional.

Whigs named themselves for their British counterparts, who were likewise opponents of imperial power. American Whigs were a congressional party, and while they had somewhat better leadership than Tom DeLay (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster), they shared DeLay’s expectation that their presidential candidates should roll over in office.

It could just be historical coincidence, but for five straight years (until the past week), the current administration has marched in lockstep with Republican congressional leaders. So, let me ask the question even Maureen Dowd is afraid to: Is George W. Bush a Whig?

At first blush, Bush supporters and opponents alike will say no, he’s an executive tyrant, not a congressional lapdog. They’ll cite his warrantless spy program, the Dubai ports deal, and congressional Republicans’ favorite game to play with the president in this campaign year: hide-and-seek.

Whig in Sheep’s Clothing: But for all we know, the imperial presidency is a clever ruse to make Congress look good. The Bush White House has made clear for months that holding the Republican majority in Congress is its main domestic agenda for 2006, so it’s entirely possible that Bush is being disagreeable just for effect. Karl Rove’s advice to Rick Santorum and Heather Wilson might well be: “We’ll give you the chance to distance yourselves from the White House—and if you win, the president will invite you down for a good laugh as he signs the next capital gains tax cut.” As Mickey Kaus  suggests, it could all be “a logical Kabuki outcome for the GOP.”

After five years of tax cuts, pork barrel, and earmarks, we don’t really know whether Bush caved to congressional Republicans’ special-interest agenda or caved to his. Until now, Bush and Congress haven’t even had any near-misses with the veto pen. For all the current carping about executive overreach, Bush may be guilty of executive atrophy instead.

Indeed, that could explain Bush’s year-long, all-bums-on-deck push to drive down his own popularity. In a polarized electorate, it’s nearly impossible to sink to 34 percent approval unless you’re doing it on purpose. Harrison and Taylor were so dedicated to a weak presidency that they offed themselves, one by catching a cold, the other by stuffing himself with cherries. Thanks to modern medicine, a 34 percent approval rating is the closest a man in good shape can come to dying in office. What better way to honor the Whig principle of limiting executive power than to be an abject failure as president?

Then again, Bush himself may be the one desperate to break free. For five years, like a good Whig, he has gone along with DeLay’s agenda—no questions asked, no bills vetoed. Now, after the Abramoff scandal, he sees that the Republican Congress is headed upriver, destined to ice his legacy along with it. From that vantage point, Bush’s support for the Dubai ports deal isn’t a colossal political blunder; it’s a refugee’s desperate cry for help.

Whig or no Whig, Bush will continue to be a washout unless he steps up to cast that first veto. For inspiration, he might look to another Whig predecessor, John Tyler, whose nickname was “His Accidency.” After Harrison died and Tyler took his place, leader Henry Clay expected him to rubber stamp the Whig agenda. But President Tyler vetoed ten bills, including Clay’s proposal to overhaul the banking system. Tyler’s Cabinet quit, and Whigs threw him out of the party. He left office after three years, bought a plantation, and named it “Sherwood Forest” because he considered himself a political outlaw.

[They’re still after him. Apparently, living politicians, their staffs, and their opponents aren’t the only ones dressing up their Wikipedia bios. Tyler has been dead for almost 150 years, but on Thursday morning, his Wikipedia bio included this surprising tidbit:  “yasmine was hur,,,check me out on myspace…if u *****’z want it…come an get it.”]

Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006

Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006

Sinking Fast: A Scottish newspapermay have uncovered Dubai’s true motive in infiltrating America’s ports. Scotland on Sunday reports that later this year, Dubai plans to start building the world’s first underwater hotel. The country will spend more than $500 million to build a luxury hotel with 500 “watertight rooms” 10 meters below the surface of the Persian Gulf. Needless to say, all rooms will come with ocean views.

It’s bad enough that Dubai wants to take over our ports. Next, it will make us live in them.

If the Dubai hotel sounds too much like “Sleeping With the Fishes,” fear not. “With safety a major consideration,” says the newspaper, “everything from the kitchens, to fire extinguishers, to the oxygen system will be state of the art. The security system will also be a world leader, with project heads stressing it will be good enough to protect heads of state.”

No wonder the Bush administration swept aside Coast Guard warnings about the ports deal. With Dubai’s help, the Secret Service could stop hauling Vice President Cheney out to a secure bunker in Wyoming and store him in a Baltimore aquarium instead.

After 9/11, the White House asked Hollywood to help dream up places that terrorists might strike next. So far, the Academy hasn’t released its report on how to re-imagine the Department of Homeland Security. But Dubai’s underwater hotel is a screenwriter’s dream. It’s a disaster movie waiting to happen: The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, and The Day After Tomorrow rolled into one.

In my script, Bruce Willis plays a hotel security guard who saves the world after being told he wasn’t good enough to work at DHS. Just before credits roll, cameras pan the glistening Gulf as Willis turns to DHS Secretary John Malkovich and says, “Terrorists check in, but they don’t check out.”

Sky of Blue and Sea of Green: John Lennon, a professor of travel and tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University, tells Scotland on Sunday the hotel will be a success: “Aquarium-style projects have been popular around the world and this is just an extension of that. Tourists now seem to want to get closer to the natural world.” Of course, if your name were John Lennon, you might be obsessed with underwater life, too.

Thanks to ambitious projects like the underwater hotel and the world’s largest indoor ski resort, Dubai has emerged as the Las Vegas of the region. “It has been successful because a lot of people don’t realise that it is geographically quite close to a number of danger zones,” Lennon says. That should be Dubai Ports World’s new motto when it lobbies Congress: What happens in the Middle East, stays in the Middle East.

Attention, environmentalists: The U.A.E. is proof that there’s a dark side to energy independence. For Dubai, the new Atlantis is only the beginning. Scotland on Sunday says Dubai-land, a massive theme park twice the size of Disney World, is in the works. Dubai also plans to expand its coastline by building 75 miles of artificial islands, including an archipelago of 300 islands that “will loosely reflect the map of the world, with outposts shaped like American states such as Florida.” Soccer star David Beckham has already bought property in one development. The world islands properties will go on sale for $7 million and up.

In short, Dubai businessmen are pushing planned obsolescence on a global scale. They’ll make a bundle selling artificial islands. Then they’ll keep making a bundle selling the world enough oil to make the islands disappear.

Monday, Feb. 27, 2006

Monday, Feb. 27, 2006

The Day After Tomorrow: This Wednesday, one of America’s greatest disappointments will turn three years old. No, it isn’t Bode Miller. It’s the Department of Homeland Security, which on March 1, 2003, emerged as the most undependable conglomerate since ITT.

Other countries would need years to build a mammoth, ossified, unresponsive bureaucracy. Here in America, we did it overnight. Already, DHS has a six-point agenda, an organization chart, and a strategic plan. The department has 180,000 employees, which makes it almost big enough to be a Katrina refugee camp.

The hundreds of thousands of workers trapped in DHS are good people, and most are good at what they do. Unfortunately, they don’t have much time for the job of making America safe. They’re too busy keeping up with all the reports on how to make DHS work.

Two weeks ago, a House committee issued a 520-page report called “A Failure of Initiative,” which offered 90 recommendations on how to improve the response to disasters. That report tried to console the Bush administration with a little bedtime story: “At every level—individual, corporate, philanthropic and governmental—we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina. In this cautionary tale, all the little pigs built houses of straw.”

Big Bad Wolf: Last week, the White House offered its own 228-page report called “Lessons Learned,” with 125 recommendations and still more fairy tales. We won’t learn what’s in the Senate report until next month, but the early betting is on the “Lambikin” fairy tale, which inspired the DHS motto: “Eat Me When I’m Fatter.”

When Tom Ridge was running DHS, the agency’s No. 1 strategic goal was “Awareness.” But according to Sunday’s Washington Post, the new secretary, Michael Chertoff, must have made some changes. In a bureaucratic tick-tock on the Dubai Ports deal, the Post says DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker was “caught flat-footed by the controversy.” The Dubai deal was “a relatively noncontroversial decision,” Baker says, “so I didn’t brief” either Chertoff or his deputy.

The White House has spent the past week telling us not to worry about selling our ports to the United Arab Emirates, because DHS will still have Customs agents on the scene. At last, their logic is clear: News that a port is in danger will never make it up the bureaucratic chain at DHS, so we’re better off bringing in an Arab company whose transmissions we have a chance to intercept.

The Post story is another classic for the Responsibility Era scrapbook. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer dumps on his ex-colleagues as “tired.” Senior White House aides fault the Cabinet for not tipping them off to the impending controversy. The agencies claim Cabinet members couldn’t have known, because “the matter stayed with assistant secretary-level officials.” Assistant secretaries no doubt blame their deputies, who in turn would like to blame career employees, but can’t—because if some career guy decides to go public and blames the higher-ups, the press will actually believe it.

Bush must not be blaming his own aides. If he were coming down harder on them, they would have found a way to pin it all on Cheney for shooting a man and disturbing their concentration. If all else fails, staffers up and down the administration can always go to Code Red: Blame the lobbyists.

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

Gun Shy: For five years, the Bush administration has been boasting about its determination to restore the lost powers of the presidency. Whenever the White House makes a mistake or has something to hide, Vice President Cheney gives a civics lecture about the good old days, when men were men, secrets were secret, and a president’s home was his castle.

There have always been a million little holes in this fable. Reagan and Clinton strengthened the presidency by standing up to Congress; Nixon, the last imperial president, nearly destroyed the institution with his penchant for intrigue and secrecy. If Bush and Cheney really wanted to bolster the powers of the commander in chief, they might try winning broader support from America’s real political boss, the electorate.

Yet the biggest hole in the empire builders’ myth is in plain view this week. On Tuesday, Bush brought out the most powerful weapon in the presidential arsenal—the veto threat—to defend the sale of U.S. ports to a Dubai firm. By Wednesday, the White House was already negotiating the terms of presidential surrender.

The list of Republicans who have distanced themselves from the deal grew so long so quickly that the White House is now trying to distance the president as well, saying he only learned about the sale after its approval. The administration and congressional leaders will stall for time and look for a face-saving compromise to avoid the embarrassment of making President Bush’s first veto his first veto to be overridden.

The Dubai debacle shows that for all this administration’s chest-beating about restoring energy in the executive over the past five years, it has systematically avoided the most important presidential power of all, the veto. Like most powers in the illusory world of politics, the veto is use-it-or-lose-it. Because Bush hasn’t mustered the strength to use that power a single time in his presidency, even the meekest Congress in memory no longer fears it.

This time, the White House has left the president out there by himself, exposed. Far from strengthening the office, Bush’s Imperial Presidency turns out to be a fraud: The Emperor has no vetoes.

Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes: The country has already paid a heavy price because Bush never met a bill he wouldn’t sign. The president can’t simply blame Congress or 9/11 for the greatest domestic spending binge since LBJ. Every cut Bush proposes in his budget is dead on arrival because he always goes along with every appropriations bill. In Washington, everyone gives speeches about fiscal discipline; only the president has the power to enforce it. In spending parlance, “no” means “yes”; the only word that means “no” is “veto.”

When it comes to vetoes, Bush isn’t in the same league with other presidents. No president since Warren Harding has finished with fewer than 21 vetoes. The last president with no vetoes was James Garfield, who was shot in his first year. In fact, three of the last four presidents who never vetoed a bill had a good excuse: Like Harding, they died in office: Garfield, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison. (The fourth was Taylor’s successor Millard Fillmore.)

There’s no excuse for Bush letting the veto power die in office. On the rare occasions when he offers a veto threat, he has chosen battles that make him look weak, not strong. For example, he threatened to veto any attempt by Congress to let Medicare negotiate prices with drugmakers. That hollow threat just gave Republicans in Congress an excuse not to do what they weren’t going to do anyway.

In the early days of the Roman Republic, the veto power first belonged not to the consuls who served as chief executive, but to tribunes elected by the plebeians as a check on patrician power. Veto is Latin for “I forbid.” Tribunes could intercede to veto actions by a government official. When Roman emperors came along, they usurped the tribunes’ veto power for themselves—but unlike imperial wannabe Bush, emperors actually used it.

In this year’s State of the Union, Bush once again urged Congress to help give the president the line-item veto. Congress applauded, with reason: The line-item veto is a good idea and well worth a Constitutional amendment to achieve it.

Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006

Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006

In Memory of a Friend: All too often, politics can be a soulless, joyless, aimless business. But over the last four decades, no one brought a greater sense of decency, joy, and purpose to the American political scene than Eli Segal.

Segal, who died yesterday in Boston at the age of 63, spent his career fighting uphill battles. He poured his soul into the McCarthy campaign, the McGovern campaign, and both Hart campaigns. By the time he signed up to help run Clinton’s 1992 campaign, he joked that he was already 0 for 6.

But Eli Segal understood what so many in politics forget: To make a difference, a campaign—like any other great effort in life—must become a cause.

Between campaigns, Segal was a successful entrepreneur, running companies that made games and puzzles. When his longtime friend Bill Clinton became president, he could have asked for any ambassadorship on earth. But Segal didn’t think his country owed him anything after a quarter century in politics. On the contrary, all he wanted was the chance to give his country something back.

So Segal did what few CEOs would do: He took a low-profile White House staff job where he could make the greatest difference. As head of a tiny office on national service, he won quick approval from Congress for AmeriCorps, a signature promise of Clinton’s campaign. The first year of the Clinton administration was bitterly contentious, but Segal soothed egos and put out partisan fires by gently reminding everyone that the cause was larger than they were. Now AmeriCorps is part of Segal’s legacy as well, giving hundreds of thousands of young people the chance to do what he did—find a cause and make service a way of life.

In Clinton’s second term, Segal took on an equally challenging assignment: persuading businesses to hire people off welfare. The welfare-reform experiment Clinton signed into law in 1996 required two great leaps of faith: that women would leave welfare for work, and that employers would hire them. Welfare recipients deserve enormous credit for leaving welfare for work in record numbers. The person who did more than anyone else to challenge the American business community to see former recipients’ great potential was Eli Segal.

At Clinton’s urging, Segal founded the Welfare to Work Partnership. When Clinton announced the effort in his 1997 State of the Union, it included a grand total of five businesses. By the time Segal was through, he had signed up 15,000 more. As a businessman himself, he went directly to executives and told them to hire people off welfare not out of charity, but because they could be great employees. Many companies soon discovered that the extra effort they put into supporting workers off welfare did so much to reduce turnover, they started providing the same help to the rest of their work force.

During the Depression and World War II, FDR brought titans of industry to Washington to serve as dollar-a-year men, helping turn their country around. Eli Segal was the last great dollar-a-year man of the 20th century. He was so good at getting things done that he may have been the first cause-a-year man as well.