If it weren’t tragic it would be a New Yorker cartoon. The president of the United States, in the final stop of his forlorn Latin America tour last week, told the world, “We do not torture.” Even as he spoke, the administration’s flagrant embrace of torture was as hard to escape as publicity for Anderson Cooper.
The fallout from the Scooter Libby indictment reveals that the administration’s credibility, having passed the tipping point with Katrina, is flat-lining. For two weeks, the White House’s talking-point monkeys in the press and Congress had been dismissing Patrick Fitzgerald’s leak investigation as much ado about nothing except politics and as an exoneration of everyone except Mr. Libby. Now the American people have rendered their verdict: they’re not buying it. Last week two major polls came up with the identical finding, that roughly 8 in 10 Americans regard the leak case as a serious matter. One of the polls (The Wall Street Journal/NBC News) also found that 57 percent of Americans believe that Mr. Bush deliberately misled the country into war in Iraq and that only 33 percent now find him “honest and straightforward,” down from 50 percent in January.
There’s so much to stonewall at the White House that last week Scott McClellan was reduced to beating up on the octogenarian Helen Thomas. “You don’t want the American people to hear what the facts are, Helen,” he said, “and I’m going to tell them the facts.” Coming from the press secretary who vowed that neither Mr. Libby nor Karl Rove had any involvement in the C.I.A. leak, this scene was almost as funny as his boss’s “We do not torture” charade.
Not that it matters now. The facts the American people are listening to at this point come not from an administration that they no longer find credible, but from the far more reality-based theater of war. The Qaeda suicide bombings of three hotels in Amman on 11/9, like the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London before them, speak louder than anything else of the price we are paying for the lies that diverted us from the war against the suicide bombers of 9/11 to the war in Iraq.
Even the most optimistic Democrat has to wonder, deep down, whether big, 1994-style change is possible in the current House. Redistricting and other incumbent protections have created a Republican fortress in recent years, with so little turnover that even the party’s relatively narrow majority is very hard to crack.
In the last three Congressional elections, the incumbent re-election rate has hovered from 96 to 98 percent, among the highest since World War II. In 2004, only seven incumbents were defeated in the general election, four of them Texas Democrats pushed into new districts engineered by Republicans.
So many districts have become safe, tilted to one party with the help of redistricting, that political analysts can identify only two or three dozen House seats that are, at the moment, competitive. Gaining 15 seats out of that small a group would be like threading a needle. In contrast, 15 months before the 1994 election, the Cook Political Report, an independent handicapper of House races, rated 89 seats as competitive – based on fund-raising, the strength of the incumbent and the challenger, and the political demographics of the district.
The classic swing district, sensitive to the national mood and open to partisan change from one election to another, is increasingly rare.
“State legislatures drew reliably Democratic districts and reliably Republican districts, and not much in between,” said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes his own nonpartisan political report. “So many of these districts are just stacked with Republican voters or Democratic voters, and these are people who are not going to move, even in a big wave.”
Of course, the public’s view of Mr. Bush and his party may change significantly over the next year. But right now, Congressional Democrats say they are preparing to run as the party of change, offering “new priorities,” as their talking points put it, with an emphasis on “putting our fiscal house in order” and making new investments in energy independence, health care and education.
Democrats are focusing on open seats, Republican incumbents considered vulnerable on ethics issues, and those in districts where Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, ran well in 2004. Ohio, where the Republicans have been in turmoil, is considered particularly ripe.
It would be wrong, with hindsight, to suggest that the Republicans had it easy in 1994; many political experts considered the very idea of Republicans taking control of the House, after 40 years in the minority, almost laughable until the final weeks of the campaign. But by many measures, the Republicans had more targets of opportunity a decade ago than Democrats do today. In 1992, 56 Democrats won with 55 percent of the vote or less, an indicator of their vulnerability in 1994, according to Cook. Only 19 Republicans won with 55 percent or less in 2004.
Or consider this: 103 Congressional districts in 1992 voted for one party’s candidate for president and another party’s candidate for the House, a marker of a potential swing district. In 2004, there were only 59 such districts. Moreover, by 1994, the realignment of the South had left some conservative Democrats representing districts that had become solidly Republican; their replacement, essentially, was only a matter of time.
But perhaps the most striking advantage the Republicans had in 1994 was the number of Democratic retirements: there were 52 open seats that year, 31 of them that had been held by Democrats, according to Cook. So far in this cycle, Republicans have 13 open seats, Democrats 7. Open seats are much easier for the other party to capture.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that many complaints about the lack of competition are, essentially, Democratic whining. “This is the same thing they’ve been doing for years,” he said. “Their only beef now is we get to do it, too.”
In the end, defenders of the current system say that politics can be self-correcting. “Incumbents who lose touch with their district are going to get beat,” said Mr. Forti. “That’s just a fact of life.” The lack of turnover in the House could be a sign, in other words, that the system works, down at the local level of electoral politics. If the national mood stays this unhappy, 2006 may put this argument to the test.
Something must be done.
Pressure on public officials to achieve some amorphous something has become enormous. As if a hurricane was mostly a problem of lousy governance, or an entity that could be prohibited, fined or — for multiple violations — jailed under Chapter Three, Section Five of the municipal code.
Something must be done. Something will be done. That’s for sure. Problem is, no one quite has a grip on what that something ought to be.
How about solar traffic lights? Solar-powered traffic lights may be the perfect solution to four-way kamikaze intersections in a post-hurricane blackout. But when the solar solution was broached at a special post-disaster meeting of the Broward County Commission last week, the proposal rang like a politician yielding to that pressure: “I must do something.”
Sometimes the best thing is do to nothing until we actually know what needs to be done.