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The bully in the schoolyard

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Message Dan Fejes

This week Alan Greenspan joined the list of people who had serious reservations about what was happening in the Bush administration but waited until the moment passed and they were out of office to say so *. There isn't anything new about an insider leaving and coming out with splashy behind-the-scenes tales, but with the Bush administration it seems like a lot more than ordinary infighting. The picture that's emerged is of a group that won't pursue legitimate issues that don't fit into their worldview, relentlessly pursue illegitimate ones that do and casually lie to the public about both. If all these people are right why didn't they resign and go public when it could have had an effect?

The simple answer: George Bush is a bully. He's nothing more than a garden variety schoolyard tough guy who struts around secure in the knowledge that everyone around him is cowed. There is good news and bad news in this. The good news is, when a bullying strategy breaks, it shatters. It's almost a proverb that once a bully finally takes a good clean punch on the nose he'll drop like a house of cards. The bad news is, no one in the schoolyard seems willing to take a swing.

The same is true for Congress. Republicans are in the process of marching like lemmings over the cliff with him, except he'll stand at the edge and watch since he's run in his last election. Their individual prospects are poor in many cases, fundraising is down, there is no enthusiasm in the base and they are looking at an even greater setback next year than they saw last year. They could end up almost completely marginalized as a party, unable to stop or even slow down a supermajority Democratic congress sending bill after bill to a Democratic President. They may be reduced to praying for luck and relying on Democrats' historical fractiousness to provide any semblance of effective opposition.

Democrats have been equally feeble. They swept into office with a mandate to end the war, they have the public solidly in their camp and their base is united, energized and screaming for change. Their opposition is panic-stricken and strategically (and philosophically) spent, and they are poised to force Republicans to either abandon their leader or be annihilated in fourteen months. Yet in this position of total advantage they shrink back - because they have been bullied. They are afraid of that big kid who gets nose to nose when they fuss a little and says, "wanna fight over it?" Everything is in their favor and yet they are paralyzed.

As for the Road To Hell Paving Crew, the most generous interpretation is that they were genuinely shocked by the naked ambition they saw behind the scenes and were slow to realize how comprehensive it was. They appear to understand that loyalty is prized above all other qualities and a failure to show it will provoke a ferocious response. The fact that so many swallowed their pride and went along shows how effective such a primitive tactic can be even at the top levels of government. They may have initially thought it was possible to make a difference from within and left when they despaired of doing so. Fair enough. They may have been isolated and not realized how common their worries were, and had they known they may have been emboldened to speak out when it would have made a difference. It can be frightening to go out on a limb all alone, and while being intimidated into silence isn't noble it is understandable.

The situation is much different now. The President and his policies are deeply unpopular and he is a lame duck - it's time for someone to stand up to him. Republicans could do so privately or Democrats could do so publicly. If he refuses to change they could render him politically impotent. Once the first cracks appeared the collapse would be astonishingly fast. Meanwhile the people in the administration regarded as "good guys" like Robert Gates and (just this week) Michael Mukasey don't have the excuse their predecessors did. Bush and Cheney call all the shots; everyone else either falls into line or gets steamrolled. Anyone who doesn't like it knows the prospects for changing it. It has reached a point where mere association is dishonorable and no one should be allowed to pretend otherwise. Here in the second half of 2007 just being in the tent with them is an implicit and unconditional endorsement.

One of the main results from this conspiracy of inaction has been potentially unprecedented executive aggrandizement. And even though that's an abstract concept, the heart of the issue is understood by every schoolboy: The remedy for bullying is simple courage.

Note: In case you don't have time to click through, the links (in order) point to David Kuo, John DiIulio, Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke, Matthew Dowd, Colin Powell, Jay Garner, Paul Bremer, Greg Thielmann, Anthony Zinni, Rand Beers and David Kay. See here if you still haven't had enough. (Return to post.)
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Dan Fejes lives in northeast Ohio.
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