Life changes fast” are the first words and the overriding message of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s extraordinary new memoir about the death of her husband. Just a syllable short of a perfect haiku line, it’s a bracing truth that has hovered near my thoughts all fall.
This week, George Bush and Mike Bloomberg must be thinking, Life changes fast. Not very long ago, Bloomberg was the out-of-touch loser and Bush the triumphal man of the people. According to opinion polls in 2003 and even 2004, New Yorkers overwhelmingly disapproved of our cold-fish billionaire Republican mayor—and this week we will overwhelmingly reelect him. Just last November, our regular-guy Republican president was decisively reelected, and even as recently as this spring, a clear majority of Americans approved of the job he was doing. No matter what happened in the real world, his administration seemed politically invincible. But around the beginning of the summer, the mayor’s and president’s respective approval trendlines crossed at the 50 percent point, Bloomberg’s rising well above and Bush’s falling below and continuing to sink.
It’s mainly about competence. It’s 311 versus FEMA. It’s the difference between a curious, careful, real CEO performing his job well and a feckless, fake “CEO president” simply sticking to an unshakable faith in his gang of buddies and a certain new geopolitical vision. Under one, crime has continued to drop to new golden-age lows; under the other, a war hastily launched and inadequately waged may now be an unwinnable botch. The mayor is a self-made man and Republican-of-convenience with no special-interest “base” to whom he must pander and no evil geniuses (no Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove) to whom he abdicates judgment. When faced with a looming fiscal crisis, instead of exacerbating and ignoring the problem, he solved it, painfully, by raising taxes. When one of his bad Big Ideas implodes (the Jets stadium), he moves on gracefully; when a Big Idea matters profoundly (reforming the school system), he allocates the requisite resources and makes progress; and after shirking responsibility for an important Big Idea (rebuilding ground zero), he eventually steps up and changes course in the right direction.
This reversal of fortunes, Bloomberg up and Bush down, is not just surprising but doubly heartening, since it’s a victory for common sense, pragmatism, and candor instead of ideology, deception, and persona. Glamorous liberal New York acclaims its boring, clear-eyed technocrat. And the rest of the country—finally—begins to see that our stressed-out magical-thinking commander-in-chief is a putz, in way over his head.
I confess to having harbored a morally dubious hope during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq: that it’d be a twofer, getting rid of Saddam and the Baathist terror and making Bush and the Republicans politically accountable for the inevitable quagmire a year or two down the line—win-win. And for better or worse, that’s the way it’s working out. I couldn’t have imagined, of course, that just as America was becoming fed up with the war, the administration would make an almost simultaneous show of spectacular incompetence on several other fronts—the shit’s creek of Katrina and the Miers nomination and the revelation of Cheney’s right-hand man as a staggeringly clumsy liar and cover-upper. It’s almost enough to make one believe in Providence.
Might the administration manage to revive? Of course; life changes fast. The storytellers who are most of the media are fond of comeback narratives. Last week’s automatic left-liberal hysteria over the Samuel Alito nomination will put the Republicans on the offense for a while, and when the judge fails to alarm the great middle and wins confirmation, that victory will make Bush look stronger. But given his own ongoing legal jeopardy, the resident White House political genius, Karl Rove, cannot be at the top of his game. And Bush’s popularity is way in the danger zone. Between 54 percent and 58 percent of Americans disapprove of his presidency. In fact, his approval numbers are where Richard Nixon’s were in the summer of 1973, during the awful torture of the Senate Watergate hearings. Even at Nixon’s bitter end, when he resigned, he still had the support of 24 percent of Americans—the irreducible die-hard Republican core. The minority that approves of Bush today is down to 40 percent and is at 29 percent among moderates of both parties. So now more than ever, the president must pay absolute obeisance to his far-right base, because pretty much only the base is sticking with him—and only conditionally, as the shocking mass defection on Miers showed. W. is their bitch now. For the rest of his presidency, he must govern as a divider rather than a uniter, encouraging his theocratic allies to overplay their hand, which will make a broad-based political revival even harder.