A decisive year for "the decider"

The Bush presidency plunged into a death spiral as the reality of Iraq spurred Americans to hand over Capitol Hill to the Democrats.

Published December 26, 2006 1:39PM (EST)

"In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country."
-- George W. Bush, State of the Union address, Jan. 31, 2006

Rarely in the annals of American democracy has a president spoken with such godlike prescience about the year to come. The choices made by the voters in the 2006 elections altered the future of the nation and asserted the character of the country. A religious man, Bush undoubtedly appreciates these words of Jesus: "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country." But, as seems evident, Bush never expected this biblical statement to apply directly to him and his tragic misadventure in Iraq.

How bad a year was it for Bush? There are four distinct stages in the death spiral of a presidency -- and Bush managed to reach three of them in 2006. He began the year with desperate, reality-defying belief in spin, as symbolized by this brazen line from the State of the Union: "We're on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory." Then came denial, as the president in his bunker believed Field Marshal Karl Rove's assurances that the Republicans had wonder weapons they would deploy on Election Day. Now we are in the Harry Truman phase, as Bush frequently likens himself to that midcentury president whose approval rating hit 23 percent during the Korean War. Pretty soon the star-crossed Bush (whose own popularity score is barely hovering above 30 percent) may display this motto on his desk: "The Luck Stops Here." All that is missing in this four-part saga is for Bush to start talking to the portraits on the White House walls -- the political version of the Book of Revelation that truly heralds Nixonian end times.

The year's most politically significant eight-word sentence comes at the beginning of the December report by the Baker-Hamilton Commission: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." While the actual recommendations of the Iraq Study Group are fading faster than Judith Regan's literary reputation, the establishment's bipartisan verdict that the war is close to unwinnable will endure. Nearly four years after the statues of Saddam Hussein were toppled in Baghdad, 2006 was the year that reality set in about the Mesopotamian mess. Outside the closed-loop universe of conservative talk radio and Fox News, there no longer is a constituency for vaporous visions of victory. Even the president himself belatedly conceded the obvious about the situation in Iraq when he told the Washington Post in a year-end interview, "We're not winning, we're not losing." The voters themselves are even more pessimistic. A mid-December CNN poll found that 70 percent of those surveyed believe that the likely outcome for the U.S. in Iraq will be either stalemate or defeat.

All this brings us to defrocked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the fall guy of the decade. Without glossing over his grotesque errors of military judgment and his legendary intolerance for dissent at the Pentagon, it does seem that all during the run-up to the 2006 elections Rummy was single-handedly taking the rap for the administration's collective failures in Iraq. By early November, even desperate Republicans were bellowing, "Fire Rumsfeld!" when asked about an exit strategy from the war, as if a new defense chief would automatically bring the Age of Aquarius to Iraq. Still, Bush's decision to wait until the day after the elections to relegate Rumsfeld to retirement remains baffling, especially to the maybe dozen GOP congressional incumbents who might have held their seats if the president had opened the (Robert) Gates earlier.

Much of what played out politically in 2006 seems inevitable in hindsight. OK, no one would have guessed that Virginia Sen. George Allen would have his "macaca" moment and go from a smart-money pick for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination to unemployment in a few short months. In fact, compared with Allen (whose racially insensitive past came to light along with his Jewish ancestry), Rumsfeld had a rather good year. Also unexpected was Joe Lieberman's zigzag path back to the Senate from Connecticut (he lost the Democratic primary to antiwar blogger hero Ned Lamont, only to win handily in November running as an independent). Depending on perspective, the Lieberman saga proved a) the warriorlike worth of the netroots in Democratic primaries; b) the weakness of one-issue liberal candidates in the general election, even in New England; c) the weirdness of Connecticut's election laws, which permitted Lieberman to run twice; or d) the wobbliness of largely self-funded candidates like Lamont in races against politically experienced incumbents.

Hard to remember how much skepticism there was last January among the seers and soothsayers about the chances that the Democrats would soon shed their minority status in Congress. The political culture in Washington is inordinately fond of identifying iron laws of human behavior based on the results of the last three or four elections. The conventional wisdom in early 2006 was that a Democratic upheaval on par with the 1994 Gingrich revolution in the House would be virtually impossible because of computer-enhanced partisan gerrymandering, the lack of close congressional elections in recent years, the Republican Election Day turnout machine and the diabolical genius of Rove. CNN political analyst William Schneider captured with perfect pitch the Beltway political orthodoxy when he wrote in National Journal in January, "Democrats are likely to make gains this year. But it would take a political earthquake for Democrats to win control of the House or Senate. Few House seats are truly up for grabs." Eleven months later, the seismic rumbles are still reverberating, as the Democrats won 29 new House seats, won six Senate seats and took over six additional governorships, including those in New York and Ohio. The most stunning statistic: Not a single Democrat running for reelection was defeated for Congress or governor.

There are many explanations for the Democratic sweep, beginning with the underappreciated value of that thing called luck -- a shift of 12,000 votes in Virginia and Montana (where Jon Tester upended scandal-singed GOP incumbent Conrad Burns) would have left the Republicans in control of the Senate by a 51-49 margin. But more than anything, the 2006 elections were a top-to-bottom repudiation of Rove's hard-right-is-never-wrong theory of politics. Despite ruin in Iraq and the culture of corruption in Congress (symbolized by disgraced Florida Republican Mark Foley's inappropriate advances to House pages), Rove's beloved conservative base turned out to loyally vote for GOP candidates, the same as always. What changed was that these angry evangelicals and antitax conservatives were about the only people voting Republican. As pollster Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, wrote, "The outcome of this election ... was determined by the shifting sentiments of independents and moderates. It is no exaggeration to say that the views of the least ideological voters decided this election for the Democrats."

The year 2006 may someday be remembered as the year when the ascension of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court -- with Senate Democrats proving to be all talk and no filibuster -- created a permanent majority of jurists seemingly willing to give blank-check powers to the president in national security cases. (The precise trajectory of the Roberts court will not be known for years -- and, in fact, civil libertarians were buoyed by Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a landmark decision in June that challenged many premises of the war on terror.)

Historians may also look back at the meteoric rise of such would-be presidents as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the outgoing Massachusetts Republican governor. These chroniclers may note the lack of even a day's pause between the 2006 congressional elections and the start of the 2008 presidential race, demonstrating that politics (not software, entertainment or financial services) is 21st century America's dominant industry.

But mostly this was a decisive year for a president who may wonder why he sought a second term. Now, mired in an unpopular war and deprived of the protection of a Republican Congress, George W. Bush -- the only true "decider" per self-proclamation -- must decide how to handle his final two years in office. For even amid the splendid isolation of the White House, Bush cannot escape the big message of 2006: The American people have offered a stinging vote of "no confidence" in his presidency.

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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 waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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George W. Bush Iraq Middle East White House