Bush's presidency took a fateful turn during Katrina and reminders of the damage inflicted from that storm were resurrected again this week with the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. What linked the two events -- and what has left the president permanently weakened -- were perceptions of incompetence within the Bush administration.It is indeed interesting that the most incompetent AG ever was finally forced to resign near the anniversary of Katrina. What Katrina did was get people to look at everything else the administration had done. The incompetence of Karl Rove had surfaced in the attempt to do away with Social Security. Oh, and there was also the Terri Schiavo debacle. If you looked real close you could already see signs that the two wars that Bush and Cheney had started were not going too well.
Certainly Bush suffered from other problems as Katrina began to make its way through the Gulf of Mexico. By then, public support for the war in Iraq had begun to significantly erode. By then the president's audacious plan to restructure Social Security was on life support on Capitol Hill. His approval rating had fallen into negative territory.
But the storyline of a bungling administration was far from fully realized before Katrina hit the coast. Democrats had lost too many elections to Bush to conclude that his political team was a gang that couldn't shoot straight. The White House team enjoyed grudging respect from Democratic opponents for its discipline, strategic impulses and, yes, competence. Public approval of the president, while drifting down, was not yet in the danger zone.
Katrina suddenly changed all that. Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster, did an analysis Katrina's effect on Bush's approval ratings in the summer of 2006 and concluded that almost a year after the storm, the president was still suffering a post-Katrina hangover.
And now the Bush sycophants in the Republican party are having second thoughts - a little late.
Much more than Katrina explains the continuing drop in Bush's support in the past 12 months, but there is little doubt that the hurricane crystallized negative perceptions about Bush's performance that he never has been able to shake. And in the fallout from the Gonzales resignation on Monday, there were renewed complaints that echoed the criticism after Katrina, that the administration lacks basic competence in dealing with problems.Well Republicans, you think it's bad now. These same guys who have started two war and fucked them both up want to go out with a bang and are doing everything they can to provoke a confrontation.
By now this is a fully developed critique. Republicans look at the Gonzales tenure and see incompetence at almost every level. They see an attorney general who, for all his personal attributes, lacked the competence to run the Justice Department. They see a White House that, faced with a revolt that began with Democrats but eventually included many prominent Republicans, waited months before taking action to bring an end to his tenure.
But they see this now not as an isolated example but as a pattern. Even among Republican loyalists, almost no one defends the administration's management of the war in Iraq. They resent that Bush took so long to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. They recall his decision to nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. They look at the midterm elections of 2006 and see a White House that, publicly at least, kept asserting that Democratic gains could be kept to a minimum.
What worries Republicans most is that the damage inflicted by the administration now costs them as much as it does the president, which has caused Republican elected officials, presidential candidates and GOP strategists to wish for a speedy end to the administration.
One GOP strategist complained yesterday that, while the White House may be worried about Bush's legacy, congressional Republicans fear the consequences of administration incompetence will affect them and their party in the coming election. "The incompetence comes at their price as much as the president's," the strategist said.