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Accountabilty Moment

Garance Franke-Ruta asks an important question:

WHAT DOES ACCOUNTABILITY LOOK LIKE? I was intrigued by a question raised in Paul Krugman?s column Friday. Krugman wrote:

Why did the administration make the same mistakes twice? Because it paid no political price the first time.

Can the administration escape accountability again? Some of the tactics it has used to obscure its failure in Iraq won't be available this time. The reality of the catastrophe was right there on our TV's, although FEMA is now trying to prevent the media from showing pictures of the dead. And people who ask hard questions can't be accused of undermining the troops.

But the other factors that allowed the administration to evade responsibility for the mess in Iraq are still in place. The media will be tempted to revert to he-said-she-said stories rather than damning factual accounts. The effort to shift blame to state and local officials is under way. Smear campaigns against critics will start soon, if they haven't already. And raw political power will be used to block any independent investigation.

Will this be enough to let the administration get away with another failure? Let's hope not: if the administration isn't held accountable for what just happened, it will keep repeating its mistakes.

I hear so many people saying the same basic thing as Krugman -- Bush must be held accountable -- that I thought maybe it would be good to get a discussion going and unpack this. Because it's not at all clear to me what holding him accountable would mean (or look like), given that he's term-limited and his party controls Congress.

What one thing has to occur in order for it to be clear that Bush has been held accountable by voters or the opposition party?

Here's my response:

First, I'm tired of the overused word "accountability." As specific and tough as the word sounds, it has become a vague and loose term, one of the great weasel words of modern discourse. Consider, for example, that every politician who talks about education invokes the phrase "teacher accountability," which can mean almost anything.

Back to the administration, or the administration+congressional leadership: I think their attitude, and tactically it's a brilliant insight, is that only a few things count: winning presidential elections, keeping absolute control of Congress -- which means not just a Republican majority but a malleable one -- and winning on the few things that matter to their cash constituents -- tax cuts, tort reform, tax cuts, energy bill subsidies, tax cuts, bankruptcy changes, and eliminating Social Security. The war was also important, for a lot of reasons, but not least because it established the president's authority to act without any check, domestic or external and gave Bush the advantages of a "wartime president." Everything else is means to those ends. The president's popularity dipped into the low 40s, and they passed the energy bill anyway -- what more proof do you need that the president's poll numbers hardly matter, if you control the instutions? Before Katrina, they were on the verge of permanent repeal of the estate tax plus another tax cut in reconciliation, even with Bush's numbers in the toilet!

That's why I didn't fully accept Garance's argument last week that they aren't really PR geniuses because of the poll numbers -- they don't need the poll numbers until they need the poll numbers, and when they need them, they figure they can find a way to push them up a bit and/or push the relevant Democrats down. (Or, another way to put it, is that they may not be PR geniuses, but they actually know that the exercise of power does not depend entirely on PR.)

I think of Rove as looking at past presidencies and seeing them as weakened because they worried too much about consequences that didn't really matter, such as the judgment of history or short-term popularity. Bush 41 thought that he had to do something about the deficit, or there would be consequences. So he got drawn into the Andrews Air Force Base budget summit, which earned him a fight within his own party. But Rove recognizes that there's a lot you can get away with if you just act like you can get away with it, especially if you raise the stakes, and as a result he moves with much greater freedom. It seems to me that part of their genius is they've gotten rid of much of the "you just can't do that" mentality of politics, and stripped everything down to the bare essence of what they can get away with.

One of my biggest worries is that that's a genie that will be very hard to put back in the bottle. Politics, like much of civilization, depends on the existence of some unquestioned, "it just isn't done" customs. An example that I've mentioned a couple times is the explicity theory, proven once again in the CAFTA vote, that you want to pass a bill with as narrow a margin as possible, because every vote over 218 in the House is wasted and might represent a compromise. That's not something that legislative strategists ever thought before -- they wanted to go into votes with the most comfortable margin, and to win with enough to have a clear endorsement against future challenges. And I'm convinced that Bush/Rove brought that same mindset to the presidential campaign. Most incumbents would want to have a nice Reagan-in-1984-type landslide in order to feel a clear mandate. But Rove/Bush thought that of every vote above 51% as a wasted concession; they knew that all Bush had to do was win, and he could declare the mandate.

So "accountability" means understanding one of the two or three things that they do care about, and beating them on those things. We must start beating tax cuts, ideally with Republican votes. Win back the House or Senate this fall, if only so that Democrats have subpoena power somewhere, something they can't tolerate. But if it's not one of the things that they care about -- if it's just one of their means, not their ends -- then while it may give us some satisfaction, it doesn't fundamentally break down their racket. (Bad poll #s, indictment on Plame, exposure of Medicare scam, etc.)

Judgment of history doesn't really matter to them and shouldn't really matter to us (how is it possible to doubt what that judgment will be?) but there is so much that we will have to undo once this era ends that it will be politically useful for anything associated with the W years to be automatically suspect and unpopular. I want to get to the point where, when the Republicans attack us for repealing some horrible tax cut, we can just say, "You people want to take us back to the George W. Bush era!" and they just slither away.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 12, 2005 | Permalink


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An absolutely brilliant, and chilling, and depressing, article. The most frightening point is that "it's a genie that will be very hard to put back in the bottle". Even if Rove winds up behind bars, he's set the precedent that anything that works is "fair game".

Posted by: Anthony | Sep 12, 2005 8:15:51 PM

This is too good to be left on The Decembrist. Won't you consider cross-posting it at the TMPCafe? It's easily the most thought-provoking idea I've come across in some time, and that includes even your previous insights.


Posted by: | Sep 12, 2005 9:01:21 PM

Mark, pure gold!! It absolutely clarifies the reasoning behind this Administration!

Posted by: Greg | Sep 12, 2005 9:19:04 PM

Well said. It seems to me that accountability (and accounting in general) to me, relates to matters deemed to have some sort of worth. If the Republican regieme only values two or three things, then that's what the opposition has to hold forfit. Or try to, at least.

Having said that, it is possible that there are things that Republicans hold to be valuable not for any reason they view to be intrinsic but because a state of affairs they value values it.

For instance, you mentioned the importance of a malleable Republican majority in Congress. Well, if a sufficient number of Republican representatives base their plyability upon high presidential approval (in their districts) then Rove, etc. should value said polling for its indirect rather than direct value. No?

Posted by: MD | Sep 12, 2005 9:22:47 PM

Only if it's a competitive district, and there are damn few of them. In most districts, Republican representatives have a lot more to fear from their party leaders than from their constituents.

Posted by: Matt Austern | Sep 12, 2005 9:37:26 PM

Superb post!

Posted by: DaveL | Sep 12, 2005 9:37:54 PM


Posted by: Jerry | Sep 12, 2005 10:26:57 PM

Isn't there well understood sociology regarding the requirement for implicit societal customs as well as formal rules for a well run society? I go to the Decembrist to cite that kind of thing for me!

Great post. You hit the nail on the head. The damage has been remarkable, but if we can tarnish everything Bush has ever done, it may be like killing the head vampire, all of his monstrosities will then be easily swept away due to their association with Bush.

I've said it before, but I hope that Bush's grandchild feel the need to hide their relationship to the former President. That would be a good sign that things are improving in America.

Posted by: theCoach | Sep 13, 2005 9:37:02 AM

That's it. In a nutshell. Now, how to beat it? There must be a way. One thing's for sure, when they do go down, it will be in flames, baby.

Posted by: Rob W | Sep 13, 2005 10:08:12 AM


For half a century, Liberals/Socialists like FDR, JFK, LBJ, and a much longer controlled Liberal Congress ran up incredible deficits, trade deficits, Korea, Vietnam (both losses by the way...Eisenhower ran WWII) and Democrats were perfectly fine turning an independent nation into a dependent welfare entitlement state. They stole elections by buying votes (Kennedy/Nixon)and they were fine with this as well. Why is there so much anxiety in the political community when Republicans have finally caught up to playing politics as Liberals have for so many years? Dems stole, controlled, and screwed up this country for the past 50 years, give the GOP the same opportunity!

Posted by: Larry C. | Sep 13, 2005 11:53:08 AM


Would you like to try again, with something a bit closer to the truth?

Posted by: Barry | Sep 13, 2005 7:07:48 PM

Why should anyone want to put the genie back in the bottle? If the Democrats gain power and do not use every tactic that the Republicans pioneered, they are useless. I for one am going to demand that the Republicans be fully frozen out of everything, using every legal tactic imaginable, if we ever regain any branch of government.

Posted by: Rich Puchalsky | Sep 13, 2005 7:33:11 PM

Thank you for the post.

Posted by: Paul | Sep 13, 2005 9:47:03 PM

"Consider, for example, that every politician who talks about education invokes the phrase "teacher accountability," which can mean almost anything."

Yes, at one time "teacher accountability" was easy to measure:

1) Can the student read?

2) Can the student write?

3) Can the student compose and solve fundamental math equatons?

4) Can the student recite historical fact?

5) Can the student discuss classical and critically-established literature? 

Fairly simple measurements, actually. What happened?

Posted by: Bagley | Sep 13, 2005 10:57:55 PM

What student are you talking about? Normally, when we are talking about education policy we are referring to millions of different kids, with different capabilities.

Looking at ju8st your first example, do you really think that there are only two reading levels, 'can' and 'can't'?

I have a request for Mark. Can you please leave something out, or incomplete so that commenting can be something other than trolling or 'Great post!'?

Posted by: theCoach | Sep 14, 2005 1:36:00 PM

It seems to me that the only means of achieving some sort of accoutability is to demand it of party members who still do have to face the electorate. Democrats in Congress should start very public petition campaigns to initiate investigative committess, both Congressional and independent, and demand signatures from Republicans. (Investigating Katrina response, no-bid contracts, intelligence failures, Delay's ethics, etc.) This could put immense pressure on the unified Republican front.

It is amazing to me that Bush and his cronies have such a strong sense of entitlement that they simply don't care about public opinion. I think they do believe, however, that if they triumph completely in their ideolical war, they will be well regarded by history. The winners, after all, write the history books.

Posted by: The Goatherder | Sep 14, 2005 3:10:31 PM

DIFFERENT ARENA, DIFFERENT ACCOUNTABILITY RULES: The investigation by Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald is grinding, grinding, grinding on, and soon indictments will be spelled out. Haven't you noticed that a lot of Republicans have picked up trouble with the law? If you cross a serious law in a serious way, and you have honest guardians of the law, then the rules of accountability change from those which can be swayed by PR thrusts, to a much, much higher plane. Imagine Rove or Cheney (or Bush, if he is an unindicted coconspirator) trying to use pretty little words to escape from a serious charge of conspiracy! Those mills will grind slowly, and exceedingly fine .... and we will see accountability of a different order, exacted at last.

Posted by: CuriosityKilledTheCat | Sep 14, 2005 3:53:50 PM

Let me add my compliments for a great post.

I think though, that perspective is useful. The idea that "anything goes" is not new. The examples of Sulla's proscriptions in the latter years of the Roman Republic - the confiscation of opponents' property (and often their execution) - dwarf the activities of the Bushistas.

The key is what generates the "it just isn't done" customs. All too often it comes from experiences that are too painful to risk repeating.

We have some of those experiences coming soon. No plan to deal with the skyrocketing price of oil, an end to economic growth from consumer credit, and the ongoing destruction of the public infrastructure. Not to mention a whole set of probable bad endings for our involvement in Iraq.

Unfortunately, I don't think the visceral rejection of the Bush era will develop until several of those bad experiences occur.

Posted by: opihi | Sep 15, 2005 4:33:02 AM

A thoughtful post, yes. But as a fellow Democrat, it still falls flat. Our party sucks because none of its leaders move forward. They simply wish for all this to be over and blindly hope things will change by themselves--the same as you're doing here. Millions of Americans, like me, want our Dem. party leaders and functionaries to LEAD us, not sit and whine. Bush's lack of real leadership is one of his largest flaws. Why aren't Dem. partisans watching and learning? Why are you waiting for things to crash on their own before acting? After all, it will be all to easy for Republicans to pull Democrats down with them when this nation goes to hell in a few years.

Posted by: pc | Sep 15, 2005 1:24:07 PM

The President’s prime-time "Katrina Comeback" address was vintage Bush. Primarily designed to help him, and not the Gulf States, recover from his administration’s disastrous bungling of the Katrina response, Bush’s speech offered to shower money on the devastated South. But in his typical fashion, George W. Bush held no one accountable and shunned independent oversight of the response and the rebuilding. Most of all, the Free Lunch President refused to ask the American people to pay for it.

For the full story, see:

"Bush's Katrina Cop Out"

Posted by: AvengingAngel | Sep 15, 2005 9:55:54 PM

Mark, if you mean what you say then it is past time for the democrats to begin to highlight the fundamental differences between the two political philosophies that underlay each party. democrats should be pointing out both what they would have done different and how. for instance, the controversy that exists now about the government purchasing mobile homes numbering 200,000 as opposed to utilizing section 8 housing, should be used to show how the deomcrats' support of section 8 is always the better policy and why. educate the people on why conservative social policies have not brought abouyt conservative fiscal policies and ask, WHERE has all the money gone. contrast the espenditures on bombs alone, for instance, with expenditures on meaningful educational initiatives and ask people, do we really want to be dropping bombs half way around the world when we can't afford to repl;ace the roofs of leakking public school buildings right here at home. re visit the reagan cuts to the great society and question why these were made without ever giving them a chance to work. sweep it all up; things related and things not, by tying them back to a defining political phil;osophy.

Posted by: chris from boca | Sep 16, 2005 2:31:40 PM

The main problem is that the Dems are as beholden to the special interest groups as the Repubs. Too much money spent by too few to govern too many.

Posted by: Martindale | Sep 16, 2005 4:22:27 PM

When the Dems can win on a slogan of: "Had enough?" We'll know the Rovians have been held accountable.

Posted by: Billmon | Sep 16, 2005 11:45:38 PM