Good things, bad presidents

Zarqawi's death -- and its potential to raise Bush's ratings -- reminds us that in the White House, luck matters as much as competence.

Published June 9, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

Somewhere between haiku and history is this 60-word rough summary of George W. Bush's presidency:

First term -- Tax cuts. 9/11. Rally around Bush. Taliban routed. Axis of evil. Saddam as Satan. War. "Mission Accomplished." Insurgency. No WMD. Job loss. Gay marriage. John Kerry. Narrow reelection.

Second Term -- Iraqi death toll. Approval below 40 percent. Social Security jettisoned. Katrina. New Orleans drowned. Scooter Libby indicted. Iraqi civil war. Roberts and Alito confirmed. Cheney shooting party. Drift. GOP panic.

It is easy to conclude from this downward spiral that Bush has reached the "I've fallen and I can't get up" stage of his presidency. All it supposedly would take is one more scandal, political setback or burst of battlefield carnage to drive Bush's support down to Nixon-in-the-bunker levels. But the airstrike that obliterated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Wednesday serves as a reminder that the American presidency carries with it vast powers for regeneration. External events can go right for presidents just as magically as a throwaway line like "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" can trigger eternal derision. Luck matters as much in the White House as competence. Just because Bush arouses venomous hatred among his critics does not mean that everything he touches automatically turns to dross.

Do not misunderstand. This is not one of these clichéd "defining moments" in the Oval Office or the first glimpse of that fabled "light at the end of the tunnel" in Iraq.

Zarqawi, for all his blood-stained handiwork, was never a wanted-dead-or-alive villain on par in the popular mind with Osama. Typical conversations around backyard grills this weekend will not be filled with political turnabouts like, "Now that we've gotten Zarqawi, I realize that Bush was totally right about Iraq all along."

At a more popular moment in his presidency, Bush reaped only a short-lived harvest in the polls when a wild-eyed Saddam Hussein was snared in his rabbit hole. As Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, puts it, "I don't think that Zarqawi will have much effect at all because attitudes on the war are more much hardened than when Saddam was captured."

What Zarqawi symbolizes, however, is a momentary shift in Bush's political fortunes. Good things do happen to bad presidents.

When Henry Paulson, the chairman of Goldman Sachs, agreed last week to become treasury secretary, he underscored that Bush still has lingering credibility on Wall Street. The administration also displayed an uncharacteristic learn-and-grow flexibility when Condi Rice convinced Bush -- despite the resistance of dead-enders like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld -- to open direct talks with Iran about its nuclear ambitions. And on the political front, the Republican Party's ability Tuesday to retain an open U.S. House seat in California postponed, probably temporarily, the suicide watch among vulnerable GOP congressional incumbents.

Even in the polls, taken before Zarqawi's death and the California special election, Bush has been slowly inching upward from oblivion. The four most recent national surveys all have the president at 35 percent or better levels. These still anemic numbers do not prompt anyone in the White House to blissfully write, "Having a wonderful time -- Wish you were here!" But nor do they inspire postcards from the edge.

There is a sense that righteous liberal fury at Bush and his war sometimes produces a level of confusion over how to react to the news from Iraq, especially when it involves unequivocal victories such as the killing of Zarqawi. Certainly a segment of the antiwar left fears that any progress in Iraq will quiet demands for U.S. withdrawal and needlessly prolong American involvement in the war.

This viewpoint -- and let's not deny that some Salon readers hold it -- is akin to the old-time Marxist notion that a Depression is a good thing because it highlights the contradictions in the capitalist system.

Worth recalling is Colin Powell's invocation before the invasion of Iraq of what he called the Pottery Barn rule: "You break it, you own it." Americans, regardless of their 2003 views on the merits of the war, do have a collective responsibility for Iraq. This is not stay-the-course blather, but an honest recognition that morality is not necessarily served by an intemperate withdrawal, leaving those Iraqi dreamers who believed in American promises to fend for themselves.

Yes, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a terrible mistake, undertaken by the Bush high command for paranoid reasons and conducted with stunning and willful incompetence.

But, in political terms, there is little to be gained by constantly looking backward to 2003 with a sense of self-righteous vindication. Don Baer, who was Bill Clinton's White House communications director, shrewdly points out, "Saying 'I told you so' is not an action plan."

There also is a difference between championing Bush's political downfall and rooting for the defeat of all his initiatives -- good and bad alike. America is better off that Zarqawi is dead and that this hidebound administration is willing to countenance negotiations with Iran. With Bush installed in the White House for the next 31 months, the best that can be hoped for are occasional -- and perhaps accidental -- lurches in the right direction.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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George W. Bush Iraq Middle East