Republicans may lick their chops over running against someone with as long a paper trail as John Kerry, but Democrats are no less hungry to take on a vulnerable administration.
The Bush presidency is fraying. An administration priding itself on unity and discipline looks confused and inconsistent as it struggles with damage control. Themes launched to divert attention – like a manned mission to Mars – are swamped by deficit reality and forgotten.
George W. Bush trailed both Kerry and John Edwards in last week's Gallup poll, and Republicans trailed Democrats by 11 points. While the primaries give the Democrats a boost, so does disarray in the administration.
Much of the fraying comes from the Iraq situation (which led to the strange speech last week by CIA chief George Tenet). Iraq revelations by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill stung the administration and were soon followed by weapons inspector David Kay's comment, "we were all wrong" about Iraq's weapons.
Bush reluctantly agreed last week to a commission to investigate the weapons issue, and scrambled to put disgruntled Secretary of State Colin Powell back on message. Bush already faces an FBI investigation into an alleged administration leak of a CIA agent's name to punish her husband for statements on Iraq. News reports say the FBI focus is on Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
The administration, which had set the CIA up to take the fall on Iraq, last week saw it strike back. The agency, said Tenet, "never said there was an imminent threat."
If Iraq weren't trouble enough, last week questions surfaced again on Bush's disappearing act during his Alabama National Guard service in 1972 and 1973, during the Vietnam War. "It's shameful that some are trying to bring it up again," said spokesman Scott McClellan, aware that this could be an issue in a race against Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran.
The embarrassments kept coming. Hardly had Powell recanted his earlier statement that the absence of Iraq weapons "changes the political calculus" about the war, when front pages blared new information about the chummy hunting trip taken last month by Cheney and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The Supreme Court is about to hear a case on whether Cheney can withhold from the public documents pertaining to the energy task force he chaired three years ago. A judge ordered Cheney to release the documents, and Cheney appealed to the Supreme Court. Scalia refused to recuse himself, stating that his "social contacts" with Cheney are legitimate.
Last week's news revealed more than social contacts. Cheney flew Scalia to Louisiana on a small government jet designated Air Force Two, rendezvousing with military helicopters to hunt at a secluded camp owned by Wallace Carline, an oil man. It was an act of monumental bad judgment by both men, and Scalia clearly should recuse himself from the Cheney case.
Cheney is much in the news lately. Even as Kay was testifying, Cheney insisted the "jury is still out" on Iraq's weaponry. His frequent visits to CIA headquarters prior to the war have been a prime source for suspicions of political pressure on intelligence.
Tenet cited no specific pressure, but his speech showed he was not about to let the CIA take the fall over Iraq.
Halliburton, Cheney's former company which already has admitted to improper billing procedures in Iraq, last week became the subject of a Justice Department investigation for allegedly paying $180 million in bribes in a gas deal with Nigeria when Cheney still headed the company.
Cheney's misadventures raise the question whether Bush can keep him on the ticket. Bush says he will, but much can change, especially if the Democrats' candidate for vice president turns out to be someone young and dynamic, like John Edwards.
One person sure to be absent from a second Bush administration is Powell. Relations between Powell and other Cabinet members have been strained, and with his comment last week about a different "political calculus" on Iraq, the strains were public again.
Once seen as the administration's non-ideological center of probity, Powell initially disagreed on going to war in Iraq, let himself be persuaded by hawks and put his reputation on the line a year ago during his U.N. presentation – which turned out to be largely wrong. (Tenet made several indirect allusions to that presentation.)
Last week, Powell tried to set things straight: Had he known what he knows now, he said, the political calculus would be different. Translation: he might not have supported the war.
After talks with the White House, he recanted. "The president made the right decision," he said.
Recanting helped his reputation as a team player, not for probity. The sad truth is that, under Powell, the State Department has been mere window dressing in this administration, where power is concentrated in the hands of Cheney; Don Rumsfeld, Cheney's former mentor, and their staffs.
Bush has the money and the incumbency in 2004, but the election is nobody's lock.
© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.