Bad times in Bush land

The month of June 2007 may well go down as one of the worst of the Bush presidency.

It was the month the wheels fell off, when the curtain was drawn aside to reveal that the great and mighty wizard was none other than Dick Cheney, when party loyalists began publicly to give up on the administration. It was a month when nothing seemed to go right for the president.

When mild-mannered, diplomatic Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., took the floor of the Senate to say that “I believe that the costs and risks of continuing down the current path (in Iraq) outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved by doing so,” it was a signal that President Bush had lost not only a staunch supporter but one whose stature will cause others to follow.

Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been with Bush through thick and thin.

And sure enough, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, got in line behind Lugar, writing to Bush that it’s time to begin pulling troops out of Iraq. Bush in June also lost his best foreign ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was forced from office.

The Washington Post’s yearlong study of Vice President Cheney resulted in a series that revealed the breathtaking span of his power. The Post said Cheney is the most powerful vice president in U.S. history, a shadow president secretly working his will on most of the major executive-branch decisions since January 2001.

The Post, after interviewing most major players in the Bush presidency, concluded that Cheney uses his vast knowledge of how power works in Washington to implement his conservative agenda. He has shaped foreign policy, permitted torture of prisoners suspected to be terrorists, rewritten environmental regulations, pushed through tax cuts for the rich while increasing the deficit, relaxed regulations on businesses and put his people into high positions throughout Washington.

Bush, increasingly isolated, is still the “decider,” but his options are laid out almost exclusively by Cheney, except on social issues such as No Child Left Behind, abortion and giving government money to faith-based institutions. And sometimes, the Post concluded, Cheney runs end runs around Bush even after his decisions.

Cheney strangely has argued that he is above legal constraints both because he has no executive authority under the Constitution as president of the Senate and also because he is part and parcel of the executive branch.

Cheney now is politically “toxic,” in the word of one pundit. (Cheney’s friends say he cares nothing about what is said about him –he’ll never run for office again– and is determined to go on bending Washington to his will for the next 18 months.) But June was also when other things about the administration started rapidly unraveling.

Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman, who resigned when Cheney pushed through what turned out to be illegal efforts to modify clean-air rules, suggested that 9/11 rescue workers weren’t properly protected. (The once-respected EPA is now driven by factions and ridiculed by environmentalists even as its decisions are overturned in the courts. Cheney, an avid hunter and angler, apparently does not worry about environmental degradation as long as his corner of Wyoming remains pristine.)

The deputy chief of the Interior Department, Steven Griles, who collected girlfriends the way some collect butterflies, was sentenced by an angry judge to prison for obstructing a Senate investigation into corruption surrounding convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Interior is widely derided as an agency that gives developers just about whatever they want.

Even the once-admired and -apolitical National Institutes of Health has fallen in public esteem. A top director has been accused of violating government rules, including conflict-of-interest guidelines and spending limits in a widespread ethics probe. “Morale is just horrible,” an NIH employee complained, anonymously, for fear of retribution.

The Supreme Court, with two justices chosen by Cheney and, perhaps, Bush, now issues almost nothing but confusing, conflicted 5-to-4 decisions, invariably on the conservative side of an argument. (It remains to be seen if the high court will slap down Cheney’s insistence on torturing suspects, jailing them without due process, chipping away at civil liberties and wiretapping without warrants.)

In June, the president’s notorious penchant for muddling his thoughts again embarrassed him. Trying desperately to push the Senate into adopting his plan to reform immigration laws, Bush, mistakenly from his point of view, called it an amnesty bill. That is just what many Republicans bitterly think the bill is, and the White House had to go into hyperspeed to say the president “misspoke.”

A bad month without much likelihood there will be many good ones ahead for this White House.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters@hotmail.com.)