The Has-been

Snooze Alarm

The side effects of Bush fatigue.

Thursday, Mar. 16, 2006

Thursday, Mar. 16, 2006

43 Winks: Nobody ever promised them a Rose Garden, but for the Bush White House, it’s been a tough year. The vice president shot a senior citizen. The domestic policy adviser faces up to 30 years on felony theft charges for applying Bush’s economic policy  at a box store. The White House pastry chef left after just 18 months to work for a more reputable outfit: a casino chain in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Nervous Republicans, who thought nothing could be worse than 2005, are increasingly desperate for a White House shakeup in 2006. Sen. Norm Coleman threw down the gauntlet on Tuesday, accusing a White House that thinks about politics 24/seven of having a political “tin ear.”

Bush aides offer a more sympathetic excuse: They’re bushed. “We’re all burned out,” a White House official told Peter Baker of the Washington Post. “People are just tired.” Chief of Staff Andrew Card sets the pace by waking up every morning at 4:20. If he got up any earlier, the president’s approval might fall below 30 percent.

When Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked whether the Bush team was tired, he reportedly “joked” that he was “tired of some of the questions.” But according to Baker, the staff’s condition is serious: “While there are few stories of aides nodding off in meetings, some duck outside during the day so the fresh air will wake them up.” All this time we’ve worried about terrorists—and now we learn the nation has been taken over by zombies.

Then again, why is the Bush crowd so tired? In five years, they haven’t done much. Cheney misfired on the last day of vacation. If the charges against him are true, Claude Allen spent more time in the Target parking lot over the past few months than my former White House colleague Gene Sperling spent outdoors in eight years.

Wake Up, Little Bushie: There’s only one good explanation for Bushie fatigue, and Stephanie Saul of the New York Times has the answer: Ambien. Last week, Saul reported on the remarkable phenomenon of driving while asleep. All over the country, people apparently have taken the drug Ambien before bed, then proceeded to sleepwalk to their cars and sleep-drive into the nearest ditch. A Colorado woman “got into her car wearing only a thin nightshirt in 20-degree weather, had a fender bender, urinated in the middle of an intersection, then became violent with police officers.” A parole officer in South Carolina woke up in jail after going on a joy ride in his sleep.

Harriet Miers, Hurricane Katrina, Dubai Ports World—could there be a better word to describe the Bush administration’s past year than “sleep-driving”? The Bush team doesn’t have a tin ear; they were just road-testing the prescription drug bill.

Unfortunately, sleep-driving isn’t the only potential side effect. According to the Ambien Web site, sleep medicines can also cause memory loss.

Yesterday, the Times reported another troubling side effect:

The sleeping pill Ambien seems to unlock a primitive desire to eat in some patients, according to emerging medical case studies that describe how the drug’s users sometimes sleepwalk into their kitchens, claw through their refrigerators like animals and consume calories ranging into the thousands.

A California woman woke up “to find candy bar wrappers next to her bed and Popsicle sticks on the floor near the refrigerator.” A Minnesota woman in a full body cast sleepwalked to her kitchen, where her son found her sleep-frying bacon and eggs. Researchers have linked this sleep-eating with amnesia: Patients gain weight, but have no recollection of their late-night binges.

Let’s see—a pattern of bloating and chronic overindulgence by people who say they can’t remember why it happened. Come to think of it, that’s the way Bush has Republicans talking about spending.

Listen to one Ambien sufferer quoted in the Times: “I got a package of hamburger buns and I just tore it open like a grizzly bear and just stood there and ate the whole package. [My husband] said a couple things to me and then he realized I was asleep.” The woman was from Dickson, Tenn.,—but she could just as well have been a Republican presidential candidate in Memphis. … 9:02 A.M. (link)

Sequels:As a politician’s politician, George W. Bush must have smiled to hear what Republicans who dream of succeeding him had to say in Memphis this weekend. Like any second-term president, he wants the wannabes to run for his third term. Yet Bush understands better than anyone how hard winning a third term can be. In 1988, when the country had tired of Ronald Reagan, he helped his father hold on by promising a kinder, gentler version. In 2000, when the country had given up on Gingrich Republicans in favor of Clinton centrism, Bush repeated the trick by inventing compassionate conservatism. Bush ran away from congressional Republicans and tried to convince voters that he’d give them a third term of the Clinton economy instead.

Sequels:As a politician’s politician, George W. Bush must have smiled to hear what Republicans who dream of succeeding him had to say in Memphis this weekend. Like any second-term president, he wants the wannabes to run for his third term. Yet Bush understands better than anyone how hard winning a third term can be. In 1988, when the country had tired of Ronald Reagan, he helped his father hold on by promising a kinder, gentler version. In 2000, when the country had given up on Gingrich Republicans in favor of Clinton centrism, Bush repeated the trick by inventing compassionate conservatism. Bush ran away from congressional Republicans and tried to convince voters that he’d give them a third term of the Clinton economy instead.

Now Republicans find themselves in an even deeper hole than in 1988 or 2000. Bush’s approval rating in the Gallup Poll has sunk to a record low of 36 percent. His disapproval rating is back up to its high of 60 percent (third on the all-time list, with three years to keep trying). With numbers like that, the political junkie in Bush would tell his would-be successors to do just what they’re doing: run away.

Much of the 2008 field, however, has nowhere to run. Those successful sequels in 1988 and 2000 promised to expand conservatism’s appeal by rounding off its hard edges. In 2008, that’s not really an option. No one—except, ironically, Newt Gingrich—is likely to run as the heir to compassionate conservatism. It’s easy to contemplate a kinder, gentler Cheney—a Republican who promises to shoot blanks. But it’s almost impossible to imagine what a kinder, gentler Bush might be. No wars? Less spying? An even more expensive drug benefit? And if Republicans can’t run as kinder and gentler, the alternative is worse: meaner and rougher. Maybe Tom DeLay isn’t finished after all.

As Adam Nagourney reports in the New York Times, Republican contenders so far have found one word to differentiate themselves from Bush: cheaper. All weekend, wannabes invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan, who was such a true believer in fiscal conservatism that the national debt only tripled on his watch, to nearly $3 trillion. Bush has presided over the disappearance of a $5.6 trillion projected surplus, and by the time he’s through will have added another $4 trillion to the debt.

Of course, Republicans conveniently forget that not only did the country tire of Reagan’s budget busting, but they tired of the paradoxical antigovernment tone that went with it. That’s what led the elder Bush to promise “a kinder, gentler nation” in the first place.

A genuine fiscal conservative like John McCain—who aspires to be Reagan without the tax cuts—will have no trouble distinguishing himself from Bush. But Nagourney points out that other prospective candidates in Memphis offered little idea what to cut, and that senators who promise to cut spending as president might have an obligation to actually vote for doing so in Congress. The headline in today’s Washington Post suggests how well that’s going: “Republicans on Hill Resist Party Leaders’ Spending Cuts.”

Spending, I Wish I Could Quit You: Nagourney says the candidates “are not alone in seeing political benefit in returning to the spending issue”—the White House sees advantage in it, too. A White House strategist suggests that talking about spending cuts could help rally the Republican base in the fall. Old spin: Deficits don’t matter. New spin: Deficits are a brilliant political ploy to get the Republican base exercised about Republican overspending. Bush has his message for November: “Vote for us—we’re spent!”

Once again, Republicans seem to have doubled back on their contradictions. In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, party strategists discovered a serious design flaw in conservatism: The country wouldn’t let Republicans cut government spending anywhere near as much as Republicans wanted to cut taxes. Compassionate conservatism was concocted to correct that glitch by just cutting taxes and letting government spending soar. The new design flaw: Voters don’t like that, either.

Bill Clinton once summed up compassionate conservatism as a way to tell voters that we really wish we could help solve their problems with health care, education, and wages, but we just can’t, and we’re really sorry about it. In Memphis, the refreshingly candid Sen. Lindsey Graham came up with a new twist. He drew big cheers for telling delegates, “I am sorry for letting you down when it comes to spending your money.”

Saturday, Mar. 11, 2006

Saturday, Mar. 11, 2006

Domestic Affairs: When Slate broke the story that President Bush’s former domestic-policy adviser Claude Allen had been arrested for allegedly swindling Target and Hecht’s, my first reaction was to blame John Ehrlichman. Except for Ehrlichman, the domestic-policy job has been a safe haven for nerds, not fugitives. Most domestic policy advisers—Stu Eizenstat, Roger Porter, Carol Rasco, me—have been notoriously boring. You couldn’t pick us out of a lineup, but you probably wouldn’t find us in one, either.

Even otherwise colorful figures like Joe Califano and Pat Moynihan dulled to gray during their time above the Oval Office. Only Ehrlichman was able to break out of the domestic-policy rut and achieve the kind of genuine notoriety that is routine for other White House posts like chief of staff or national security adviser. He found time for obstruction of justice; the rest of us spent all our time fighting obstruction by HHS.

Stu Eizenstat once told me that when he came to the Carter White House, a bottle of whisky—with Ehrlichman’s private label—was waiting for him in the domestic-policy-office safe. In 1981, Eizenstat left it behind for his successor. When I came along 15 years later, that bottle was long gone. But in 2001, I left a new bottle of whisky (and all the W’s on my keyboard) for Margaret Spellings, who was Bush’s domestic adviser until she became education secretary and turned the job over to Allen.

Like his boss, President Bush, Allen didn’t make much of a mark on domestic policy. The job he’d really wanted in the first term was a federal judgeship, which he lost because of offensive comments he’d made as an aide to Jesse Helms.

Allen is accused of refund fraud—buying items and taking them to his car, then going back into the store to grab identical items and turn them in for a refund. The Washington Post says investigators documented fraudulent refunds for a Bose home-theater system, stereo equipment, clothes, and a photo printer.

If the allegations are correct, that’s a sad way to go. Even in this White House, it is possible to believe in the Ownership Society a little too much. … 12:52 A.M. (link)

Thursday, Mar. 9, 2006

Thursday, Mar. 9, 2006

Biggest Fan: If you want to know why George Bush’s approval rating is at 34 percent, do what he’s probably doing: turn on ESPN to watch the World Baseball Classic. So far this year, getting Cuba to play in the WBC is Bush’s biggest domestic-policy achievement, as well as the poster child for his oft-misplaced and all-too-often-absent attentions.

The WBC is Major League Baseball’s attempt to bring some of the enthusiasm of the Olympics and the World Cup to what has long been seen as America’s pastime. The concept suffers from the same flaw as Olympic hockey: The favorites are well-stocked with major-leaguers who live in America. But sometimes gods don’t answer fastballs, as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriquez, and Team USA showed last night in losing to the happy hosers from Canada. If Mexico beats Canada tonight (while scoring two runs or less), the Americans will be eliminated in the first round of our own tournament—and sent back to spring training to dodge the press with Barry Bonds or party with Bode Miller.

Even if Team USA rallies, most Americans aren’t about to confuse next round’s likely showdown between South Korea and Canada with March Madness. But in the handful of nations that give beisbol its proper due, the Classic could prove over time to be as fierce a rivalry as the Cricket World Cup.

Two months ago, it looked like the World Baseball Classic might not happen. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control—not to be confused with Treasury’s infamous Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States—had denied the Cuban team’s application to take part on the grounds that any money Cuba made from the games would violate U.S. sanctions. Baseball’s international governing body responded by saying, “No Cuba, no Classic.”

In most administrations, the story would probably end there. Major League Baseball would plead with Treasury to make an exception; Cuban-Americans would pitch a fit to prevent it. But unless spy planes uncovered nuclear missiles primed to attack us if Cuba couldn’t play in the WBC, the president would have ignored the whole thing and devoted his precious time to winning more pressing games, like the war on terror.

But this is no ordinary time, and George Bush is no ordinary president. Bush intervened with Treasury to force a face-saving compromise: Cuba could play, as long as its share of WBC revenue went to victims of Hurricane Katrina. As the New York Times reported in January ($):

Administration officials said the reversal of the position came after the president became directly involved. As a former partner in the Texas Rangers, he knew, they said, that there were ways to organize the high-profile games without aiding the government of Fidel Castro. “The president wanted to see the matter resolved in a positive way,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “Our concerns were making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime, and that the World Baseball Classic would not be used by the regime for espionage. We believe those concerns have been addressed.”

As John Dickerson has pointed out, White House officials regularly try to make Bush sound more engaged than he really is. But they had no reason to spin this incident. Politically, his handlers would be in no rush to credit the president for personally intervening to alienate his Cuban-American base. Moreover, the last thing the White House wants Middle America to think is that Bush spends his time compromising his principles to help out the commissioner of baseball.

So, if the NSC says giving Cuba an intentional pass was the president’s idea, I believe them.

I’m not sure which should trouble us more: that the president’s security advisers think a group of Cuban ballplayers poses a serious threat of espionage, or that it took the president himself to come up with a transparent ruse to ignore his own Cuba policy.

Doctor Che: Like Bush, Fidel Castro lives for baseball and is using every ounce of his dictatorial powers to inspire his young team. On Sunday, he brought the team to the Palace of the Revolution and told them to win one for the Guevara: “I leave you with the words of Che: ‘Struggle until victory forever!’ “

In its first game yesterday, Cuba struggled until victory in extra innings. Cuba won gold in three of the last four Olympics, but this new team is young and untested. Just in case the future of communism depends on a B-12 shot, Castro’s son is the team’s trainer.

Every world leader should be a baseball fan, and if the World Baseball Classic somehow advances the cause of global understanding, there are plenty of other reasons to get rid of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. What’s troubling about Bush’s going to bat for Cuba is the stark contrast with how rarely he seems to go to the same trouble for folks back home. If there were a videotape of the National Security Council and the Treasury Department briefing him on Cuba’s exemption, it would no doubt show the president asking a barrage of questions.

George Bush is fast becoming a man without a country and even a man without a party. Six months ago, he blamed the aftermath of Katrina on Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin. Now he’s blaming the House Republican caucus. Today’s decision by Dubai to pull the plug on the ports deal suggests that after five years without use, the veto has now become the common-law property of Congress.

Ironically, the president’s attention to detail on Cuba’s behalf underscores what Dubai and Katrina have in common: Bush is paying the price for those disasters because he just wasn’t paying attention.

Tuesday, Mar. 7, 2006

Tuesday, Mar. 7, 2006

Sunken Treasure: This weekend, several readers urged me to take a deeper look at Scotland on Sunday’s claim that Dubai’s $500 million Persian Gulf resort will be the world’s first underwater hotel. It turns out that rich foreigners aren’t the only ones getting ready for global warming. The world’s first underwater “hotel” is right here in the U.S.A: the Jules Undersea Lodge off Key Largo, Fla.

No one should underestimate the nation that gave the world Flipper, Aquaman, and SpongeBob. Let the U.A.E. build the world’s first underwater luxury hotel, the Hydropolis. In the Jules Undersea Lodge, America boasts the world’s first dive-inn.

The men who started the Jules Undersea Lodge didn’t have millions of petrodollars to sink into a playpen for the wealthy. They’re research scientists, and the Jules is a converted research facility, named for Jules Verne. Divers like to stay overnight there as a quick way to run up their dive times.

Guests put on scuba gear and dive 21 feet to an apartment, complete with TV, microwave, and 42-inch windows into the ocean. Far from Atlantis, it looks more like Davy Jones’ locker room. But if you’re in a rush to get married and can’t wait for the Hydropolis to be done late next year, you can rent the whole place for $1,200 a night. You can even order out for underwater pizza.

The idea for Hydropolis came from German aerospace engineers who wanted to design the first hotel in space, but settled on inner space instead. They sold Dubai on the project and now envision a whole chain of what they call “mankind’s first series of Oceanic Settlements.” The German entrepreneur behind Hydropolis says, “I am certain that one day a whole city will be built in the sea. Our aim is to lay the first mosaic by colonising the sea.”

“There is a direct analogy between the physiology of man and the architecture,” according to a design article promoting the project. “[The hotel spaces] can be compared to the components of the human organism: the motor functions and the nervous and cardiovascular systems, with the central sinus knot representing the pulse of all life.” Just to make sure the hotel and human organism are in sync, the resort will include its own clinic to perform cosmetic surgery.

Other hotel chains must be feeling the heat. As CDNN—the Cyber Diver News Network—reports, Hilton has opened “what it says is the first undersea restaurant in the world” five meters deep off the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Then again, Hilton may merely be thinking ahead: The Maldives are scientists’ favorite example of a place that will go under if climate change is for real.

Twenty Thousand $ Under the Sea: Xenophobes can relax knowing that eccentric Arab billionaires and strange German scientists aren’t the only ones with wild underwater plans to conquer and colonize the world. An American group is now promising to build “the world’s first sea floor luxury resort,” once they can find a place to put it. Rooms at the Poseidon Undersea Resort will run $1,500 a night, although for 20 grand you can get a private submersible as well as “your private submarine captain and butler.” Leave your wetsuit at home—like a submarine, the Poseidon claims it will be “the world’s first one-atmosphere underwater hotel.”

The Poseidon is the brainchild of L. Bruce Jones, president of U.S. Submarines, a company that builds what it calls “the world’s first personal luxury submarines.” These subs cost between $1 million and $80 million, with “pre-owned submarines and submersibles” available for bargain hunters.

Jones is also president of Deep Blue Development, which plans to purchase land in Las Vegas to build—you guessed it—”the world’s first underwater resort and casino.” The resort will include two 50-story towers as well as 500 rooms beneath the surface of artificial lagoons. Small subs will move guests around the complex.

The Poseidon sea-floor resort was originally slated for the Bahamas; now Jones is looking at the South Pacific. The company Web site claims “literally hundreds of locations worldwide that are suitable operating locations for a Poseidon resort.” There’s one place the company says it won’t build:

“We are absolutely no longer considering the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East as a possible location for anything. Our business experiences there were truly terrible.”

Xenophobia or patriotism? You make the call.

Dr. Evil: Underwater resorts seem like a huge but relatively harmless waste of rich people’s money. The more disturbing question is, who’s buying these personal submarines? Hasn’t anyone at the Department of Homeland Security rented The Spy Who Loved Me or Goldmember?

Here’s a tip for profilers at DHS: If a Porsche is the first sign of mid-life crisis, a private sub is the first sign that someone is a megalomaniac out to take over the world.

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.”]