From Tuesday Night to Wednesday Mourning

They’re fleeing the jurisdiction of Bush & Co., Inc., and you can hardly blame them. The departure of Attorney General John Ashcroft is a godsend for us all, even President Bush. And there is a rush of others.

The retirement of Secretary of State Colin Powell was no surprise. He was conned on Iraq by the administration’s warmongering right-wingers and then ignored when he began to realize that they were wrong. They conned him into making a pro-war presentation to the United Nations General Assembly, a trickery that his associates have since told newsmen left him “bitter.”

What was a surprise was the president’s announcement nominating Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, to succeed Powell as the first African-American woman Secretary of State. She would be only the second woman to hold that post, after Bill Clinton’s choice of Madeleine Albright.

Because Rice has been associated with “the Vulcans,” the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration who conceived and pushed forward the war in Iraq, which they said would be “a cakewalk,” she may be grilled on that at her Senate confirmation hearings, but she is expected to win rapid approval.

But an editorial in the New York Times put her impact bluntly: “Now that Condoleezza Rice has been nominated to be the next secretary of state, the whole world seems to be noticing that George Bush is stuffing his second-term cabinet with yes men and women. It’s worrisome, although when the president did have dissident voices in the top tier of his administration, he did a very thorough job of ignoring them. Optimists can regard the new team as a more efficient packaging of the status quo.

“Our concern about Ms. Rice is not that she makes the president feel comfortable. It’s that as national security adviser she seemed to tell him what he wanted to hear about decisions he’d already made, rather than what he needed to know to make sound judgments in the first place.”

No one will really miss Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham or Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, plusor minusCentral Intelligence Agency director George Tenet. Tenet quit a while ago and is now reported to be making big bucks as a high-priced speech maker.

It is not, so far, a clean sweep. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is still there, and so is Gale Norton, the Secretary of the Interior. Under her control we have correctly called it the Department of the Inferior. But other Bush Cabinet departures may be coming, including that of Tom Ridge, the Secretary of Homeland Security.

WHO’S NEXT?—To replace Ashcroft at the Justice Department, the president has picked his White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales. His confirmation as attorney general by the Senate seems probable, if not exactly easy going. And there is speculation in Washington that after some time as attorney general Gonzales will be nominated as the first Hispanic for a Supreme Court seat.

If so, after he is interrogated for the post of attorney general, and his controversial views have been spotlighted, that confirmation for a lifetime Supreme Court post may not be certain. As the nonpartisan Washington magazine The National Journal has put it, “the problem with Gonzales is that he has been deeply involved in developing some of the most sweeping claims to near-dictatorial presidential power in our nation’s history . . . allowing him to imprison and even (at least in theory) torture anyone in the world, at any time, for any reason that Bush associates with national security.”

The results of those Gonzales claims, and his ignoring of the prisoner protections adopted by the post-World War II Geneva Conventions make it clear that he has little use for the principles of international law. A Gonzales memo to the president called the Geneva Conventions “quaint.” So far, his influence has brought on the Guantánamo Bay prison mess and the photographs displaying inmate tortures at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He may find all that hard to explain at his Senate confirmation hearing.

CLOAKS AND DAGGERS—The spooks, as employees at the Central Intelligence Agency are known here, are being spooked by their new boss, former Representative Porter Goss (R-FL), and the conservative Republican staffers he brought with him from Capitol Hill. The word in Washington is that the president told Goss to purge the agency of “liberal” officials believed to have resisted Bush’s Iraq war and other White House policies. The Wall Street Journal says Goss “has a mandate to quell the anti-Bush insurgency” at the C.I.A. Of course, this also ensures that criticism of presidential error will not be forthcoming when needed.
Goss, a former C.I.A. manager and more recently the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, reportedly assigned one of his committee staff members, Patrick Murray, to conduct the partisan housecleaning. That brought the resignations of the veteran director of the spy agency’s clandestine operations, Stephen Kappes, and his deputy, Michael Sulick. The agency’s deputy director, John McLaughlin, also bailed out.

The senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, called “the departure of highly respected and competent individuals at such a crucial time a grave concern.”

OTHER DEPARTURES—The most closely watched absentee in Washington has been William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. At age 80, he has been taking some sick days, recovering at home from recent surgery for throat cancer. His retirement, when it comes, will bring Bush his first opportunity to fill a Supreme Court seat.

Concerned about what now seems to be an increasingly conservative outlook for the High Court, one of our readers suggests that Congress should limit to two the number of Supreme Court Justices that any president can seat there for life terms during his one or two terms in the White House. Interesting, but not likely to happen.

The New Yorker magazine says that “conservative Republicans will now control the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate so firmly that the Supreme Court, which is also in conservative hands, has abruptly become the most moderate of the four centers of federal power.”

The president has made no secret of the fact that his two favorite Justices on the High Court are the conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. An op-ed piece in the New York Times notes that if he has three appointments to replace other retirees there it would “turn the extreme Scalia-Thomas world view into the law of the land,” bringing reversals of Roe v. Wadeon abortion rights, of affirmative action in college admissions, and of protection for the disabled.

Presidential historians have been busy noting the problem-filled second terms of the re-elected presidents of the last century: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Bush now has American troops laying siege to Iraqi cities like Falluja, while firefights, suicide bombings and kidnappings multiply elsewhere in the country. The continuing U.S. failure in Iraq bodes ill for the future of democracy in the Middle Eastand for the U.S. government supposedly dedicated to it. The death of Yasir Arafat does not make this mission any easier.

All that has cost the U.S. prestige in the world. We hear from a friend who grew up in England and who recently became a U.S. citizen that the Bush family’s roots are known in the U.K. The Bush clan’s origins have been traced back to the 17th century in Essexto a town he says is aptly named Messing.

On the Bush re-election, the British press did some messing of its own. Noting the size of the Republican turnout, the Daily Mirror asked: “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” Other European journals agreed. Germany’s widely read weekly Der Spiegel put the Statue of Liberty on its coverblindfolded by an American flag.

Here at home, when the Electoral College convenes in the U.S. House of Representatives chamber in January to re-bestow the presidency on George W. Bush, one Republican elector isn’t planning to cast his vote for him. He is Rob Richie, the longtime Republican mayor of South Charleston, West Virginia. News reports say that he disagrees with Bush’s economic policies and his conduct of the Iraq war.

Reforming or abolishing the antique Electoral College system is unlikely in this conservative Congress. To undo it and to pin the presidential election outcome directly to the national popular vote would take passage of a constitutional amendment here in Washington, and then confirmation by a majority of state legislatures. We’ll have more on correcting the Electoral College trap in a forthcoming issue.

And please note our own correction. Describing the efforts of a few states to escape the rigidity of the winner-takes-all Electoral College system, in our November 15 issue we mistakenly listed Maine and Nevada as the two states that already distribute their electoral votes proportionately by the election outcomes in congressional districts. The two states are Maine and Nebraska. Colorado voters just rejected an attempt to match that needed reform.

THEY’RE BAACK!—As we went to press, members of the do-almost-nothing 108th Congress were forced to return for a lame duck closing session. The undone, left-over legislative business includes nine belated annual appropriations for government departments, which were due at the start of the federal fiscal year on October 1.
When the even more Republican-dominated 109th Congress convenes in January, President Bush will ask for action on his campaign promises, including more tax cuts, an increase in the soaring federal debt limit and the semi-privatization of Social Security.

He is also expected to press his congressional majority for a resurrection of the line-item veto. That power was taken from the chief executive—then Clinton—in 1998 in a 6-to-3 decision by the Supreme Court. This president has so far not vetoed any legislation, an appropriation, or other item.

The line-item veto authority, if revived by Republicans in Congress, would let Bush strike out specific budget authorizations he didn’t like without affecting the balance—assuming the Supreme Court did not object again.

On Election Day Republicans won 19 of the 34 Senate seats that were up for grabs. Senators serve six-year terms, but the Founding Fathers required the election of House members every two years to make what on Capitol Hill is called “the lower body” responsive to the public. It’s not working.

Of the 435 members of the House, only seven incumbents lost their re-election bids, and in more than 150 House races the winner got at least 60 percent of the vote. More than 75 others won with at least 70 percent of the vote.

Four of the unseated Democratic incumbents were victims of dirty-deal Republican redistricting in Texas—a gerrymandering grotesquerie engineered by Republican Representative Tom DeLay, a.k.a. “The Hammer.” Such non-competitive elections increase citizen cynicism and decrease voter turnout.

As the Washington Post puts it, congressional redistricting has meant that “politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way around.” In the 435 House districts only 35 (8 percent) engaged candidates in truly competitive races.

The post-election autopsy of the Washington columnist Stuart Rothenberg was that “the strength of conservative and Republican voters more than offset a surge in Democratic turnout.” His outlook for the Democrats in the congressional elections of 2006: “If they can’t score significant House and Senate gains during the second mid-term election of George W. Bush, they never will.”

THE GOD SQUAD—An op-ed commentary in the Los Angeles Times said, “Until the Democrats learn how to bring God back into the discussion, they have little hope of returning to power.” Morton Kondrake, a conservative columnist for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, says, “My post-election advice to Democrats is: go to church.” And Bob Jones, the right-wing evangelical founder of Bob Jones College, sent a letter to the president saying that “God has graciously granted Americathough she doesn’t deserve ita reprieve from the agenda of paganism.”

It would ordinarily have been a truly obscure Republican winthe non-voting House “delegate” of Puerto Rico in the House of Representatives. But it turns out that the G.O.P. won that seat for the first time in a century. The winner was Luis Fortuno, 44, familiar with Washington as a graduate of Georgetown University and with a law degree from the University of Virginia.

THE POLLS—Mike Luckovich, the pointed-pencil editorial page cartoonist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, got off a shot at the baffled political pollsters. He drew a fortune teller seated with a man seeking celestial counsel and explaining why she had chosen her occupation. “I was a pollster,” she says. “I had to find a more respectable line of work.”

Luckovich also drew a Bush aide showing the president an election night map, and saying: “Red states have fever, blue states have nausea.”

Michael Moore, whose anti-Bush movie Fahrenheit 9/11 was a multimillion-dollar hit—but failed to dislodge the incumbent on Election Day—says he isn’t giving up. He says he will have a new movie on screen before the next presidential election. “The official mourning period is over,” Moore says, “and there’s a silver lining—George W. Bush is prohibited by law from running again.”

What is not prohibited by law, when it comes to our air and water, has become clear in some digging by reporters who looked at the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.). The Los Angeles Times quotes Mike Leavitt, the E.P.A. administrator as hailing the re-election of Bush as “a validation of the philosophy and the agenda” of the agency “in a way that maintains the economic competitiveness of the country.” In other words, the goal of the E.P.A. is to regulate minimally air and water pollution in ways that promote energy production and profits.

The E.P.A. chief noted that 35 percent of the agency’s staff will become eligible for retirement in the next four years, giving him the opportunity to redo—and reduce—its technological and administrative mission. That is already happening. A watchdog group called the Environmental Integrity Project has found that, compared with data on the last three years of the Clinton administration, the number of civil lawsuits filed against polluters dropped 75 percent during the first three years of the Bush administration.

THE BALLOT BOOM—It has been given little attention in the media, but one voting phenomenon has been the boom in “ballot government,” choices presented directly to citizens through ballot questions. Columnist Neal Peirce says they “open the door wide to end-runs around local elected officials.”

The main target has been the urban transportation gridlock that grips cities from coast to coast. Ballot questions presented to voters—and given citizen approval on Election Day after local governments had blown it—ranged from heavy voter approval of a $4.7 billion plan in Denver for some light rail commuter lines to approval of similar plans in Austin, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona.