a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Tipping points of the last two years

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 27th, 2006

Josh Marshall asks an interesting question at TPMCafe:

…far from having the political capital he boasted of in November 2004, President Bush is positively radioactive in much of the country. Certainly, he is more consistently unpopular than probably any president in modern American history. So here’s the question. Was there a key galvanizing event? And if so, what was it? Katrina? The failed Social Security gambit? Abramoff? Or was it simply the long political fuse of Iraq finally catching up with the president? Certainly all these events and trends played a role. But what was the tipping point? Looking back, what mattered most?

Tipping point” is an interesting concept; whole books have been written about it, and there are certainly any number of web sites and articles applying the idea to social change, climate change, and epidemics, to name a few. Think of a penny balanced on its edge; with just a small push at this tipping point, it falls heads or tails.

But usually tipping point also means that once the tipping’s done, a new equilibrium rules: i.e., the penny lies flat, heads or tails. It seems to me that both the 2000 and 2004 elections showed that the whole country was roughly balanced at a tipping point — but throughout Bush’s first term. And without at least two photo finishes in Montana and Virginia, the 2006 election wouldn’t have quite the same promise of being a watershed event (similar notion, I think) in its own right. So being at a “tipping point” has become a political way of life in this country.

Still, there’s an undeniable change of momentum, and Marshall proposes a number of events that may have provided the impetus. I’d add at least a few other suggestions: Cindy Sheehan’s vigil at Bush’s Crawford ranch (August 2005) , the Scooter Libby indictment (October 2005), the Samarra mosque bombing (February 2006) the Foley scandal (September 2006), and the overwhelming 90-9 passage of the McCain amendment prohibiting torture by US personnel (October 2005).

You don’t have to agree with Sheehan on every count to acknowledge that her vigil was supremely effective political theater. The symbolism and, yes, spectacle of a dead soldier’s mother confronting a president off on yet another vacation resulted in a public relations shellacking for Rove and Bush that they never did figure out how to address. At least as important, she was an inspirational rallying point when others were ready to throw up their hands and just wonder what the matter was with Kansas, so to speak. Camp Casey may have been a “little tipping point” between giving up and not giving up for a lot of people.

That isn’t to say the other events listed above didn’t play important roles, too. The Social Security debate showed what even a humbled Democratic Party could do if it stuck together and stuck to its guns about an issue. The Schiavo travesty was an extremely sharp reminder of the Bush administration’s identification with and service to its radical base. It’s hard to classify a continuous debacle like Iraq as a “tipping point,” but the Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006 was at least one of several waypoints towards irrevocable civil war and the attendant American public disillusionment. For all that Senator McCain was so deeply disappointing later on in his support for the Military Commissions Act, the McCain amendment vote was a rare but important legislative defeat for the Bush administration, and showed there was the possibility of a broad coalition against human rights abuses by this country. And the Foley scandal might deserve to be the runnerup; it dominated news coverage, undercut GOP claims to the “moral values” vote, and it was far more easy to understand than the convoluted webs of corruption woven by the likes of Abramoff and DeLay.

But the big tipping point, I think, hit with hurricane force. It was the Katrina disaster that irrevocably lost Bush the respect of his electorate, and knocked a lot of the swagger out from under the “drown the government” crowd that supplies half of the Republican Party’s ideology. As Boyd Blundell wrote in May, Katrina

…offered irrefutable images that [Bush] was not looking after the common good. It undermined the average American’s self-image of being part of a country that actually worked. Without consciously changing their mind on a single policy, a good quarter of the country just stopped believing in the President.

It turned out Americans didn’t like seeing their government fail at essential services; they were, in fact, profoundly ashamed. Even if that memory has receded more than it should have, Katrina tipped the scales from Bush the Bold to Bush the Bumbler, and crucially had nothing to do with terrorism or Iraq — for which Bush deserved a failing grade as well, but which had been politicized seemingly beyond all hope of consensus.

Katrina, by contrast, was an undeniable, consensus disaster of biblical proportion — with an equally undeniable, consensus verdict that knaves and fools were “leading” the country as the levees broke. While Bush’s approval ratings were already declining by late August 2005, it never recovered from the additional hit Katrina delivered. I’d argue that Katrina provided the point of comparison and even, for many, the psychological permission to realize that Bush was likely a screwup in Iraq as well.

Katrina was and remains a breach of faith between a government and its people, and I think it’s not “merely” right for Democrats to address it — it’s politically smart to do so. Democrats must establish themselves as the “can do” party, and whatever they can do in the Gulf coast will simultaneously remind voters of the “can’t do” party. Whether or not that translates into winning a particular Louisiana or Missisissippi election down the road, it could be a “tipping point” too: reminding voters of what a government with and by adults can look like, and helping them decide that’s the kind of government they want.


NOTE: “never recovered” leads to a graph of presidential approval ratings by Charles Franklin (“Political Arithmetik”), a UW political science professor who puts Katrina more in the middle of the pack of “galvanizing moments”: Katrina was a substantial “hit” to approval after a decent summer in which the approval decline had flattened out a little bit (though not started back up) after a very poor winter and spring that included the failed social security reform. However, “never recovered” seems a fair reading of the graph as well. DemFromCT (“The Next Hurrah”) cites Gallup findings suggesting that it wasn’t Bush’s job approval ratings that changed so much — just evaluations of his competency and leadership.
UPDATE, 12/28: Marshall links to several responses including ones by Mark Schmitt and Todd Gitlin. For his own part, Marshall agrees with a reader that the Social Security debate was key, pointing out that Bush’s fortunes were declining before Katrina. Elsewhere, digby bends the rules and IDs the pre-2004 election Duelfer report officially concluding there were no Iraqi WMD (“it just took a while to sink in.”)

6 Responses to “Tipping points of the last two years”

  1. ascap_scab Says:

    My personal tipping point was when it quickly turned out there were no WMDs in Iraq, and no imminent threat in the form of a mushroom cloud. It turned out the only thing in Iraq was oilfields. The Oil ministry was the only protected building and Rumsfeld left the rest of the country open to looting which told a lot of what BushCo’s true intentions were.
    I was skeptical of the evidence on Iraq and wondered why we had to go after Iraq when we had/have an unfinished war going on in Afghanistan. Then the one lone sane voice in the Bush Admin (or so I thought), Colin Powell went before the UN.
    I still wasn’t completely sold, but figured Powell must have seen classified info that couldn’t be shared, and as he was Secretary of State, wouldn’t roll over like he would have to if he were still in the military chain of command. Did he ever screw the world!!
    If you want some other “tipping point” points to consider:
    The Dubai Ports deal.
    Domestic spying by the NSA.
    “Free Speech pens”
    Guantanamo Bay prisons.
    Abu Ghraib.
    CIA torture renditions.

  2. ascap_scab Says:

    I thought of a couple more “turning points”
    The entire aura of Karen Ryan/Jeff Gannon/Armstrong Williams/Maggie Gallagher paid for propagandists.
    The lone veto of stem cell research and denial of all things science, from Kyoto to closing the EPA libraries to rewriting reports without the authors knowledge.
    The “Faith Based Initiative”.

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    While Josh’s question focused on stuff between the 2004 and 2006 elections, there were clearly turning points, tipping points, whatever before then. Between Bush’s two close elections, he’d had stratospheric approval ratings after 9/11, so the bloom was off even by Election Day 2004.
    Similarly to you, I thought “surely they’re just not telling us everything they know, so it’ll stay where they can find it”; I also thought that other intelligence services really believed there was something going on in Iraq. I should have insisted on more than that, and certainly Congress should have.
    I agree with you about personal tipping points, particularly Abu Ghraib and the final declaration that there were no WMD or even WMD programs — and the attempts to minimize all of those. Until Abu Ghraib in particular, I had figured I ought to stick with something I’d publicly supported, despite mounting evidence of incompetence and no WMD. But not after.

  4. Nell Says:

    I think Cindy Sheehan and Camp Casey had a good deal to do with the complete collapse in assessments of Bush after Katrina.
    The scene of a man shut away on his vacation estate, unwilling even to talk to a woman asking the question that most Americans had asked themselves (“Why are we in Iraq? What’s the noble cause?”), then speeding by with the windows rolled up… Bush looked weak and out of touch. A lot of people who didn’t necessarily changed their position on the war took in that subliminal image.
    Then, in the total failure and paralysis of government response to the levees breaking, that underlying impression made it possible to blame Bush; it confirmed his utter incompetence and pathological lack of human connection.

  5. Robert Says:

    Thomas is right; the tipping point for the country was Katrina. Once everyone saw how incompetently the administration handled that, most people started to figure out their handling of Iraq was incompetent too.

  6. » Blog Archive » "If you want to know what Miami’s going to look like 100 years from now… Says:

    […] think there’s a lot to that, and I’ve also argued that Katrina was the key turning point for Bush’s political fortunes. It’s sad to see […]

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