With the indictment of Lewis Libby and possible indictment of Karl Rove, President Bush faces a fateful choice. Bush can adopt a bunker mentality and try to appease his base of social ultra-conservatives and military hawks who have brought him such grief. Or he can reach out to the broad mainstream, as he pretended to do when he ran as a ''uniter, not a divider" in 2000.
Who would have predicted that the Bush machine would implode so spectacularly, on so many fronts simultaneously? It is worth pausing a moment to take stock of it all:
The vice president's chief aide is indicted on perjury and obstruction charges that potentially implicate Cheney, since he told Libby of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's position. This investigation will inexorably lead to even more damning evidence that the case for taking America to war in Iraq was based on deliberately faked information.
The religious right humiliates Bush on the Harriet Miers nomination. This will leave Bush furious at his usual allies, weakened politically, and Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress more determined to prevent the far right from dictating the next nominee.
Tom DeLay, the Republican leader (and chief enforcer) in the House, is indicted for corrupt campaign money-laundering, while his opposite number in the Senate, Bill Frist, faces potentially criminal conflict-of-interest charges for dumping stock (supposedly in a blind trust) in a public company controlled by his family just before the stock tanked.
The president is caught flat-footed in the most serious natural disaster in a century.
First-term Bush appointees who opposed the Iraq war belatedly go public, including former senior State Department officials Lawrence Wilkerson and Brent Skowcroft, with the unmistakable inference that George Bush Sr. did not support his son's ill-considered war. The 2000th American combat death in Iraq underscores the decline in public support for the Iraq war and the administration generally.
Some of this stunning political collapse reflects ideological hubris; some of it is ordinary corruption taken to an extreme.
What now? Bush could recover by governing as the moderate he once pretended to be. One slightly encouraging portent is Bush's appointment of Ben Bernanke to chair the Federal Reserve. With the world's markets watching, he did not dare name an ideological extremist.
With the religious right having deserted him over Miers, Bush could return the favor and name a distinguished centrist who would attract Democratic and moderate GOP support, and let the far right stew.
If he were Bill Clinton, you would expect him to ''triangulate" -- forsake his own base and reach out to the opposition, as Clinton did with NAFTA and welfare reform.
Bush might appoint a new chief of staff and senior political adviser, contain Cheney's role, and shake up his Cabinet. He might reject the military adventurism of the neocons, turn to traditional foreign policy realists, and begin cutting his (and US) losses in Iraq.
While Democrats may take some grim satisfaction that the mendacity, overreach, and incompetence of the Bush administration are exploding on the Republicans, it is small comfort. For this is our country, too, and we have to live with the fallout. Barring an impeachable offense, these people will be running the country for three more years. We will be left with the legacy of their destructive policies for years, if not decades.
One can only hope that Bush will respond to the damage created by his alliance with the far right by rejecting the captivity of Rove, Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and turning outward. Given all the temptations in this dangerous world, and all we've learned about the administration's cynicism in using the politics of fear and division to manipulate public opinion, one shudders to think what Rove, Cheney, et al. might dream up if Bush, in his present damaged condition, circles the wagons.
Clarification: My last column implied that universal health insurance in Germany and Japan spares foreign automakers from all insurance costs. In fact, foreign automakers share some costs, but they are far lower than in the United States. General Motors pays about $1,500 per car in worker health costs. In Germany, with costs shared between employer, worker, and the retirement system, Volkswagen pays $418 per car. In Japan, where most insurance costs are financed by the public health system, Toyota pays $97.
Correction: Walter Reuther was the fourth (and longest serving), not the first, president of the UAW.
Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2005 The Boston Globe