It was a terrible summer for President Bush and the fall doesn’t seem to be much different. Americans appear to be turning off on him quicker than one can say Harriet Miers and every day brings a new demonstration of the truth of Murphy’s Law.
For instance, of all the troubling stories to emerge from the invasion of Iraq none is more so than the reported financial imposition placed by the Army on returning wounded, many who have seen their futures irrevocably altered by the tragedy of war. What, we should all ask, in the name of God is going on here?
Well, the answer as to why collection agencies are calling men and women who have literally given an arm and a leg for their country may lie in a big-time computer snafu and the Army’s inability to get it rectified after a decade of trying. Congress has been looking into the matter for nearly as long and seems just as unable to fix it although individual members have come to the rescue of GI constituents plagued by bill collectors that include Uncle Sam.
Should we be surprised? Considering the overall approach to this ill-advised conflict with too few troops for pacification, a shortage of armor and the charges for equipment to National Guards and reservists, the reply would be “certainly not.” So the recent news items about severely damaged young men and women returning to badgering demands for debt payment are just another reason for growing disenchantment with the conduct of the war. It’ a cumulative thing that has a considerable number of Americans now believing the war was major mistake.
The president’s woes seem to mount almost hourly as new polls show him with a historically low approval rating and Republicans becoming increasingly nervous about next year’s congressional elections. They should be. Two of their top leaders are now involved in questionable activities _ former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist _ and the chief White House political guru, Karl Rove, faces possible indictment on charges stemming from the identification of a CIA undercover operative.
When piled on the disaster of two major hurricanes and the continuing strife in Iraq, the president’s clout with those who must face reelection next fall is diminishing far more rapidly than normal for a lame duck. Bush claims to pay little attention to the polls although his frantic efforts for visibility amidst the wreckage of the Gulf Coast after an initial slow response would belie that. Even if he could care less about popularity than about how he is perceived in history _ a normal attitude among presidents in a second and last term, certainly those running under his banner are concerned about the surveys that show his ratings, and theirs, falling off a cliff.
What this precipitous decline in popularity and more importantly confidence means in the long run is disaster for the administration’s domestic initiatives _ reforming Social Security , Medicare and Medicaid and the tax code. His choice of White House counsel and crony, Harriet Miers, even has his conservative base angry. He also faces a monumental budget imbalance that is only going to get worse. He should consider increasing taxes either by proposing a one-time surcharge earmarked for rebuilding the Gulf Coast or he should call for repealing the first-term tax cuts that are scheduled to become permanent. Bush seems unlikely to accept either solution, leaving the restoration of the Gulf Coast and the continuing efforts to democratize Iraq to be financed with deficit spending.
So every time news stories appear like the ones about collecting from wounded veterans, the president’s stock declines a bit more whether or not he even was aware of the problem. If he wasn’t, he should have been, the theory goes. What Bush is finding is that the presidency is a magnet for blame in troubled times. Even the smallest molehill becomes a mountain of dissatisfaction when the economy looks bad or the Army messes up the pay of its troops.
One wag having read the stories about the beleaguered veterans suggested that Bush might want to begin billing soldiers on a per-day basis for their food and lodging in Iraq. It might be a solution for the occupation’s mounting costs. Perhaps they could be charged for their shot and shell.
None of this is meant to be funny. The president should pick up the phone and order Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to attend to this injustice immediately. It might be a way of making his winter look less bleak.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)