Ah, the view must be fine for George W. Bush. With his job-approval rating at 84 percent, he stands atop Mount Gallup.
But GWB would be wise to remember his father, GHWB, who crashed rapidly after his post-Gulf War approval peak -- 89 percent in late February 1991. A year later, the father's rating had tumbled 50 points, and less than six months after that it bottomed out at 29 percent.
Approval-wise, the War on Terrorism has been good for the son. He might still get a bump up if bin Laden is found. There might be a rally-around-the-flag bump up if, God forbid, the nation is attacked again.
But as pundits gawk in awe, the voters who didn't vote for Bush (that would be most of them) might take heart, and those that did might take caution, from the experience of Bush the Elder: the pull of political gravity cannot long be defied. There are clouds scattered across GWB's fine view that are gathering into a storm.
Take the Enron mess. As Congress investigates the company's implosion, it becomes clear that the larger scandal preceded Enron's demise. What we know at the moment about Enron is comparable to what we knew just before the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals exploded, says John Dean, the former Nixon aide who knows a thing or two about such matters.
"Enron's bankruptcy is only the initial public revelation of this scandal," writes Dean on the Web site FindLaw.com. "Much more remains to be unraveled."
Dean supports his contention by citing Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman's recently released letter that suggests how Enron, long before it collapsed, benefited from special favors from politicians -- and everyone knows that George W. Bush is, or was, Enron's favorite pol. The company is Bush's "top career patron," according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
According to Waxman's letter, the White House selected Enron's favored candidates as federal energy regulators; it worked at least 17 of Enron's favored policies into its energy plan; it resisted price caps opposed by Enron that, when adopted, finally helped California through its 2001 energy crisis. The Waxman letter notes that Vice President Cheney personally intervened on Enron's behalf when the company was negotiating with the government of India, and how the administration reversed the Clinton administration's effort to restrict offshore tax havens that Enron used to hide its activities. The White House-favored GOP "stimulus package" would have given $254 million in tax rebates to Enron just when it needed cash (the best corporate investment these days is in politicians, who give back a hundred-fold after a relatively modest investment in lobbying and campaign contributions).
The Enron scandal could even engulf Karl Rove, GWB's closest political advisor and the GOP's new Lee Atwater (consider that Bush '92, without Atwater, was a fiasco). Rove allegedly secured a paid Enron consultancy for political operative Ralph Reed in an effort to keep him off the GWB campaign payroll.
Sixty-one percent of Americans already want an Enron special prosecutor, according to a late-January poll by Democracy Corps, a strategy and polling operation run by Democratic Party associates James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum. That same poll showed 12 percent believe the Bush administration acted illegally in dealing with Enron, and another 35 percent believe the administration acted unethically. Also in late January, a CBS News/New York Times poll found 67 percent of Americans believe that members of the Bush administration are "hiding something" or "mostly lying" about Enron. These numbers will only grow if juiced by new revelations.
Enron Is Not Alone
When Bill Clinton and his Razorback buddies came to Washington, they paid a high price for bringing Arkansas' particular way of doing business with them. Now, George W. Bush has brought Texas to town. That means a cozy corruption between politicians and big business, especially the oil industry.
One example of Bush's Texas-on-the-Potomac strategy is his recently announced climate-change initiative. Rather than enact compulsory rules to curtail global-warming pollution, Bush proposed voluntary measures along with financial incentives to polluters -- just like the clean-air policy he pushed to adoption as governor of Texas. (It proved so ineffective that after Bush came to D.C., the Texas legislature replaced the law with one based on mandatory restrictions.)
As David Case has reported for TomPaine.com, Bush's Texas plan bore the unmistakable imprint of one of his best corporate buddies, oil-giant Exxon (now ExxonMobil). Documents unearthed by Peter Altman, an environmental activist, show that the company played a leading role in formulating Bush's Texas plan.
Now see how history repeats with Bush's recent initiative. Case reports:
Back in October 2001, while most Americans were preoccupied with the war in Afghanistan, ExxonMobil Executive Vice President Rene Dahan told the Financial Times that Bush's plan "will not be very different from what you are hearing from us." Then on January 22, 2002, CEO Lee Raymond flacked for it in London weeks before the president released it publicly, the London Guardian reported. Raymond (whom the newspaper calls "the most ecologically challenged man alive") visited Prime Minister Tony Blair to "persuade [him] not to join the chorus of international disapproval" over Bush's plan.
ExxonMobil declined TomPaine.com's request for comment on how it had such advance understanding of a policy only just announced. But Americans might like to know -- after all, they care more about the environment than about more tax cuts. A recent Zogby poll found 63 percent favor a rollback of the Bush tax cut to provide more money for environmental protection. A few well-reported stories of polluter-driven policy making by the White House might knock Bush off his approval peak.
Simmering Domestic Issues
As public concern over terrorism is supplanted by simmering domestic concerns like the environment and the economy, GWB's ratings also could suffer.
Take his tax cuts. The public clearly has other priorities and may not be convinced by Bush's pseudo-populist "it's your money" tax-cutting rhetoric.
The Democracy Corps poll found that 81 percent of Americans are opposed to keeping the tax cuts scheduled for 2004 and 2006 if the money comes out of Social Security. The same poll shows 54 percent favor canceling the tax cuts for families making over $130,000 per year. Eighty-four percent oppose keeping the Bush tax cuts if they cause an increase in the national debt. (Remember that the deficit was the first concern of Perot voters who abandoned GWB's dad in 1992.)
Zogby found that 71 percent of the public favored rolling back the tax cut to provide more money for prescription drugs for seniors. Furthermore, a Zogby poll released on February 6 asked the following question: "If after two years the war against terrorism has been won, but there is no prescription drug plan for seniors, would you rate President George W. Bush's performance as excellent, good, fair or poor?" Only 37 percent said excellent or good, while 54 percent said fair or poor!
These results are stunning (and largely overlooked): half of the people giving George W. a 73 percent job performance approval rating in the Zogby poll abandoned him over one issue -- prescription drugs.
These numbers suggest Bush's footing on top of Mount Gallup is slippery.
Can he hold his perch if the economy defies Wall Street's eternal optimists (the same ones who praised Enron so vociferously)? What if Bush's effort to conflate Iran/Iraq/North Korea into Hitler/Mussolini/Tojo leaves our foreign policy confused and our global standing diminished? What if most Americans turn out to agree with Secretary of State Colin Powell when it comes to condoms and sexually active teenagers? What if Americans begin to wonder why our national accounts are back in the red so soon after George W. took office?
This moment looks like Bush's peak. Sure, he's standing on top of Mount Gallup, but it's all downhill from there.
Steve Cobble is director of the Campaign for a Progressive Future. John Moyers is editor of TomPaine.com.