Everything went wrong for George W. Bush in October, 2005. Some called it "the perfect storm." It seemed to take Bush by surprise and left him like someone buried in the mudslide, still alive but struggling hard to extricate himself. It looks unlikely that he will be able to do so. Let us review all the fronts on which Bush suffered political setback.
First, Iraq. The U.S. casualty rate passed 2000, and this was noticed even in middle America among those who initially supported the war. Many now feel it was a mistake. Bush’s approval rate fell to under 40%, extremely low even for a president in his second term (when ratings often fall). The elections to ratify the Iraqi constitution didn’t really help. True it passed, but over very heavy Sunni opposition. No one believes that this constitution can be the basis of a long-term stable, legitimate government, or that this government would really survive a U.S. pullout.
Then, there are the indictments. Note the plural. The Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, is facing charges of money-laundering for electoral gain, and has had to step down. His close political ally, the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, has been indicted for fraud. And above all, the very powerful I. Lewis Libby, Chief of Staff to the Vice-President and Assistant to the President, has been indicted on five charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements. This indictment is of course closely related to the Iraq War, since the issue was Libby’s attempt to discredit Joseph Wilson by "outing" his CIA secret agent wife. Wilson had been sent on an official mission to Niger and later publicly related the non-existence of proof that Saddam Hussein has been buying uranium there. To be sure, Karl Rove has not yet been indicted for his involvement in the same project to discredit Wilson, but the Special Prosecutor made it quite clear that this remains a real possibility. Looming on the horizon is an enquiry into the financial misdeclarations of Senator Bill Frist, the Republican Majority Leader, concerning stock sales. And we should remember that indictments lead to trials some time later, in time to remind everyone of misdeeds after the initial publicity has died down.
Next came the Supreme Court appointment fiasco. Seeking to avoid a knockdown battle in the Senate over the Supreme Court nomination, Bush chose his lawyer, Harriet Miers. He was immediately pounced on by his most conservative supporters, who doubted her conservative credentials. Bush said trust me, and they said we don’t trust you, because the only thing that concerns us is undoing the right to abortion, far more important to us than supporting George W. Bush, and we’re not sure about Miers. They forced her withdrawal, a humiliation for Bush. He has now had to nominate a person they want, Samuel Alito, and he will thus get the Senate battle he wanted to avoid. Whether Alito is confirmed or not, the political bottom line was stated by former Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, a quite conservative Democrat, who noted the consequence for Republicans in Congress: "It means the fear factor is gone."
And then, to top it off, the President of Iran chose this moment to thumb his nose at the United States by publicly calling for the destruction of Israel as a state. To be sure, this has been Iranian official policy for almost three decades, but restating it now so flagrantly was simply saying to Bush, "I dare you to do something about it." Meanwhile, in Israel, the very temporary truce between the Palestinians and the Israeli government seems to have collapsed.
Can Bush do something to recuperate? Well, obviously, he is trying in the Alito appointment. But even if Alito is confirmed, the credit will not go to Bush. Can Bush invade Iran? Most obviously not. And getting a U.N. Security Council resolution to sanction Syria, if he can, is small potatoes. If one goes through the list of what went wrong in October, every item will continue to plague Bush: mounting casualties in Iraq, political instability in the Iraqi government, judicial trials that in every case implicate his government, a fierce social battle over the Supreme Court, and Iranian (and North Korean) open defiance.
Even political friends are getting off the sinking ship. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of Bush’s few fervent allies in Europe, but himself in trouble in his coming elections, chose this moment to announce very publicly that he had fruitlessly tried to persuade Bush not to invade Iraq. And Senator Trent Lott, former Republican Majority Leader, opined that Bush needs "fresh faces" among his immediate aides and the cabinet.
Within the Republican Party, the reaction of persons up for election has been to take their distance from Bush. Once upon a time, not too long ago, everyone wanted Bush to campaign for them. Now candidates are careful not to invite him to do this. Bush’s ability to be the leader, nationally or internationally, is critically damaged, perhaps irreparably.