Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
Now, Democrats have. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement saying:
"At last President Bush has recognized what I have been saying for more than a week -- the federal response to this disaster must be managed by a capable leader."Pelosi's wrong. And she's not just wrong, she's dangerously wrong, in a way that suggests Democrats, after five long years, still don't understand their adversary. President Bush recognized no such thing. One lesson Bush has taught us -- despite our fierce resistance to learning and internalizing it -- is that he actually is quite forthcoming about what he wants to do and why. (Yes, of course, he lies, but no president in modern memory has been so impervious to the pressures of public opinion -- this is precisely what his base loves about him -- and therefore often unafraid to speak his mind). The Democrats have repeatedly made the mistake of assuming they knew the real reason why Bush and/or his fellow Republicans were doing something, even when GOP officials were on record as saying exactly what they were doing and why. Democrats and the media need to stop assuming that Bush thinks like they do, stop condescending to him by presuming to read between the lines, and start taking his words at face value.
Let's consider what the administration said yesterday about Michael Brown, who is still the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Scott McClellan once again declined several opportunities to give or to deny Brown the president's full confidence. Brown's immediate boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, very precisely and clearly:
“I've directed Mike Brown to return to administering FEMA nationally...I want to make sure FEMA continues to be run the way it needs to be, continues to be prepared to anticipate other challenges...Mike Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge. I appreciate his work, as does everybody here." [Emphasis added]When Brown, at Chertoff's side, was asked whether this was the first step toward his resignation from FEMA, Chertoff interjected:
"I've explained what we're doing. I thought I was about as clear as I possibly could be in English as to what I'm doing and why I'm doing it."Well, he was. Now, I know it's counter-intuitive and scary, but for just a moment, let's all play a round of Assume The Republican ISN'T Lying. Why would Bush order Brown's redeployment at this time? After all, last week, when Brown was doing worse, Bush told him he was doing "a heck of a job." So either the president was lying at the time or has changed his mind. If the president thought Brown were doing a crappy job, why would he say otherwise? He's fully capable of treating even those loyal to him in a cold and dicky fashion. And if the president were, for some reason, lying, why drop that lie now? After all, much of the non-Brown Katrina news was positive, as both water levels and fatality estimates sank. The political storm about FEMA's response showed signs of abating as hope started to gain on outrage. Yes, the revelations by Time magazine and others (see here, and here, and here, and here) about Brown personally were embarrassing and pathetic. But Bush has never cared about those kinds of revelations.
That leaves the possibility Bush changed his mind. But we've seen virtually no evidence of that. Even when the media picked up the criticism, Bush repeatedly characterized the response, which was Brown's responsibility, as acceptable. Only the results, which Bush has treated as somehow divorced from the response that produced them, have been characterized by Bush as unacceptable (and even then he has implied that local performance or issues of coordination were at fault).
The obvious explanation, and one that most media and Democrats likely will agree with, is that Brown had become too explosive for Bush to support any longer. But discussing it as an admission of defeat is precisely what has allowed Bush to turn this entire debacle to his political advantage.
Instead of perceiving Brown's removal as a concession of defeat, Bush's critics need to understand that Bush, at least in his own mind, removed Brown not as a concession or admission of defeat, but as a move that strengthened Bush politically. After all, Bush has suggested since early on that he would "fix" whatever the problem was. Now, as his own critics are in the position of saying, he has! By giving Democrats (and to some extent, the media) precisely what they were howling for -- Brown's removal -- Bush clears the way for the logical, if perhaps unanticipated, consequence of the Democratic argument: Consensus that Brown, not Bush, was the problem, and now Bush has fixed it.
With Brown's removal, Bush cements that notion in the media narrative and in the public consciousness. And it's fundamentally false. Brown was never the problem. Bush always was.
Digression: We saw similar scenarios play out, with tellingly different resolutions, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and advisor Karl Rove. The left howled for their removal. Their missteps and misdeeds were at least as egregious as Brown's -- and significantly more blood could be seen on their hands. So why didn't Bush remove them? The key point here is that Brown, unlike Rumsfeld and Rove, shares one distinctive trait with every single person Bush has removed from office: He lost faith. Right out of the gate, Brown revealed what I thought at the time was an admirable willingness to admit both that problems existed and that he was not omniscient. He dared remove Bush's cloak of infallibility. That is the one sin George Bush has never countenanced. (Ask Michael Parker, or Paul O'Neill, or Thomas White and Gen. Eric Shinseki, or Gen. Anthony Zinni, or Lawrence Greenfield, or Larry Lindsey or Richard Foster.)
Now, that is not a new observation. But that's all the more reason to wonder why Brown should be the first exception to it, and to test whether it applies to him. Take a look at these excerpts from his Nightline interview on Thursday, Sept. 1. Yes, it's full of the usual Bush-administration blame dispersal, but I've bolded several points where Brown went off-message and conceded that his agency, and therefore the administration, were something less than perfect, and a few points where Koppel alluded to how rare that is:
TED KOPPEL (Off Camera): Earlier this evening I spoke with Mike Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he's coordinating disaster relief of a dozen Federal agencies and the American Red Cross. I asked about the discrepancy between FEMA's estimate of the number of people at the convention center and the mayor's estimate.If there's one thing we've seen in the Bush administration, it's that no one takes their medicine. This is a faith-based regime; taking medicine is heresy and it gets you excommunicated. I think Brown had the decency, or even just a sufficient lapse, to acknowledge that his agency fell short. However, it's not the falling short itself, but the acknowledgement of it, that spelled his doom. That axing Brown benefits Bush politically is another motive, of course. Bush can now wash his hands of the Katrina blood and say, "I said I would fix the problem, and I did." Watch to see what happens to his poll numbers over the next week or so.
KOPPEL (Off Camera) One of you is wrong. It's either 5,000 or 15,000. Do you know?
MICHAEL BROWN, FEMA DIRECTOR: Actually, I have sent General Honore of the First Army to find out exactly the truth of what's down there because we first learned of the convention center, we, we being the Federal government, today. And that he says the number's around 25,000.
KOPPEL (Off Camera): Okay. So, it, it sounds as though the mayor, who said 15 to 25,000, was closer in touch. I've heard you say ...
BROWN: Ted, we had people pre-positioned to move in immediately, and what happened,
which is unusual in this disaster, there's two things. First and foremost, the disaster continued long after Hurricane Katrina had moved on. When the levees did break, we were already moving in and then had to move back out. Then I think the other thing that really caught me by surprise was the fact that there were so many people, and I'm not laying blame, but either chose not to evacuate or could not evacuate. And as we began to do the evacuations from
the Superdome, all of a sudden, literally thousands of other people started showing up in other places, and we were not prepared for that. We were, we were surprised by that. And so what we've done is we have ramped up the rescue efforts to get those people. There are helicopters flying tonight to take care of the people on bridges that we have found. There's
additional supplies coming into the convention center and into the Superdome. And we have brought in every available resource to make sure we take care of those people. And I want to say to the American people that they do need to understand exactly how catastrophic this disaster is, and they do need to know that we're gonna have every available resource to do everything that we can. We're gonna take care of these victims, we're gonna make it right. We're gonna make certain, we're gonna make absolutely certain that the devastation that has been reaped upon these people is taken care of and that we get their lives back in order.
KOPPEL: With all due respect, sir, the people, the people in the convention center are not being fed. Our reporters ...
BROWN: I misspoke, the people in the, the people in the Superdome. I'm sorry, you're absolutely correct. We're getting the supplies to the convention center now. But the people in the Superdome have been being fed, that supply chain has been working, and that has been moving along and those evacuations have been continuous.
KOPPEL: But the people of New Orleans were told to go to the convention center. They went there in the belief that supplies would be waiting for them when they got there.
BROWN: Well, I don't know who made that promise to them, Ted, but our job was to get those supplies in there once we realized that the Federal government was gonna be asked to come in and do that, and that's exactly what we did.
KOPPEL: All right, Mr. Brown, again, you know, forgive me for, for beating up on you there, but you're the only guy from the federal government these days who's coming out to take your medicine. So I thank you for doing that, and I really hope you're gonna be able to help those people because you still have, trust me, you have got thousands of people at the convention center tonight who need your help desperately.
BROWN: Ted, I agree with you. I got to tell you, in, in, in all sincerity my heart goes out to those people, and I am determined, absolutely determined, to speed this thing up, make this thing work and get the aid to those people. This is a catastrophic disaster for this country.
KOPPEL: (Voice Over) Michael Brown, thanks very much indeed.
But despite the intensity of the criticism this time out, the left again has made the same mistake it made with Rumsfeld, Rove and others. They should have ignored the malfeasance of subordinates in every instance and focused always, laser-like on the man who put them in place not despite their inept, corrupt approach to governance, but because of it. Until the left learns to take Bush seriously enough to make him the issue every single time, Bush will always be able to escape culpability by sacrificing the people who do his bidding. That will always be enough to satisfy his base, and that has always been how he wins.