This was not the most perfect year for the President or for Congress. The tally of political footballs fumbled is almost too long to count, but if one is to learn from the mistakes what not to do, then a review is in order.
First and foremost, the national election of 2004 did not earn the President any political treasure which would last beyond two weeks. President George W. Bush expended his energies after the inauguration rambling about the country in front of pre-screened friendly audiences about the need for his version of Social Security reform. This was a plank that was little mentioned in the last three months of his campaign for reelection, and if it was mentioned there was miniscule details presented on how he would go about an overhaul.
To be blunt, the system does face structural funding issues that might come to bear on future retirees depending on the economic cycles and forecasts used. An honest debate on how to address these issues would have served the nation well, but at the outset the Administration's position of the SSA facing an $11 trillion shortfall for the indefinite future made clear that 'honesty' was not going to be a central theme in the debate. Without honesty, the Democrats in Congress essentially waged open war on the proposal (it should be noted that there never was an official piece of legislation put forward by the Administration during these debates; it would cause the President to negotiate with himself which he said many times). The public became more skeptical of the plan of the President the more they learned about it, and when it became clear that after the sixty city tour had laid an egg, the drive for Social Security reform died during the summer.
Lesson: Reforming a major entitlement program requires a serious discussion based on facts agreeable to both sides, and an open ear to compromises and concessions in order for an agreement to be reached. Pretty simple, yes?
Iraq has been the proverbial pair of concrete shoes for the Bush presidency. With each successive election or accomplishment of the new Iraqi government the U.S. Administration touts the good news as worthy of celebration. However each and every day there comes the bad news. A stampede on a bridge to a mosque killed in excess of 800 Iraqis in one day. Car bombs and ethnic assassinations and retaliations continue. Ground forces are encountering somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.3 KIAs a day. The institutions being formed and the government being birthed in Iraq is listing towards a fundamentalist state day by day. With that as an ongoing backdrop, the President continually reported a sunny optimism to the progress of Iraqis. Military experts called before Congress insisted the training of local forces was going well while conceding that the amount of fully independent divisions ready to fight on their own had DROPPED. All the while, billions upon billions of dollars is flung at the affair with painfully little oversight as to its distribution or value received. National Guard and Reserve forces are almost fully a third of active soldiers in the field. To say that there are a few problems in the country would be a severe understatement.
While many Democrats were muttering about how poorly things were going, they did not find a cohesive voice throughout most of the year. That was until John Murtha spoke directly to the public and to the President about what was going on. Representative Murtha's call for an immediate withdrawal of American forces out of direct combat in Iraq caused a national dialogue on the pivotal issue of this decade. This lasted for about two weeks. The Republican leadership in the House thought it a great gift to make Democrats vote for (as they called it) "cutting and running" from the boondoggle that is Bush's war. By the end of December, most on the left were still vacillating on what tack to take when communicating with the general public on what course of action to pursue in Iraq. The moment passed and the Administration putting more sugary coats on the progress to date, the year ended with no foreseeable conclusion to the civil war beginning in Iraq.
Legislatively, there were any number of poor calculations and miscues. Life support for the brain-damaged, stem cell funding at the federal level, and a litany of legislation not passed all had times in the spotlight of the major media outlets. At the center of these bad calls was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. A doctor by training, and a politician by desire, the Senate Leader had his foibles this year in terms of political standing, and has yet to come to terms with a stock trade in his supposedly blind trust fund that was timed oh-so-correctly to coincide with the plummeting value of HCA. Yes that HCA, which his father and brother founded. The probe into this may come to fruition in full view of the 2006 election cycle. Some contend that his votes on the Senate floor reflect a keen interest on being kind to large insurance companies like HCA. Let's keep to the political shenanigans though.
Frist found himself at the center of a media storm over the removal of life-support to one Terri Schiavo. Medically listed as brain dead since the 1990s, her husband had gone to court with Terri's family to have the feeding tube removed and to let her pass away. On the surface it sounds ghoulish, but the feeding tube was the one item that was sustaining the body of a woman whose life shown no sign of returning whatsoever. Republicans in Congress were appalled that the state courts of Florida had agreed continually with the legal arguments of Terri's husband, and when the final challenge fell, there was nothing but an aggressive Congress to protect her. The good doctor Frist became involved, adding his professional diagnosis that there was brain function apparent in Terri and that she should continue on life-support. Unfortunately for him, the diagnosis came from selected video which, when taken out of context of her full condition (vegetative state twenty-four hours a day), made her appear as somewhat conscious. Cue the ill-fated overreach of the Republicans to prevent the removal of the feeding tube. Curiously, the White House and Congressional leadership stopped their efforts once it became apparent through polls of the American public that it intensely disliked such maneuvering.
Senator Bill Frist found a change of heart on the matter of using federal monies to aid in the study of embryonic stem cells. It was an unexpected shift in his pro-life credentials which he will need if he pushes along in a Presidential bid for 2008. While offering up what amounted to a sincere stance on the issue on the Senate floor, it added to a sense that there was a lack of control within the leadership position.
The Nuclear Option (as coined by Sen. Trent Lott) was another instance where Majority Leader Frist looked to be playing the part of leader while others went about solving the problem. When a handful of judges were reappointed by President Bush for seats on the bench, Frist was going to make sure that no Democrat could filibuster the nomination, so out goes the rules and in goes an approval of a lifetime judge based on a simple majority vote. When the so-called Gang of 14 broke with the leader and offered up a compromise, the appearance that Frist was in control gently wafted out the window.
Where to begin on the bills which he mangled. The P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act was going to be passed the way the Administration wanted come hell or high water. It was filibustered, and Frist couldn't get four Republican members from jumping ship to kill the filibuster. This resulted in the short extension passed by both houses. He along with Senator Stevens of Alaska could not get the full Senate to ever approve of tacked on legislation allowing for drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Reserve. The last attempt was to include this in the Defense Authorization bill. This was quite similar to the Gun Manufacturers' Liability Law (note, it would have removed the liability part) that took a higher precedence over a Defense authorization bill, which would have included a ban on torture, quickly placed on the calendar before the August recess. And of course, John Bolton's failed nomination in the Senate was nothing to gloat about.
Not a very good year. The lesson here must be that the majority should locate and elect a competent leader who knows how to operate in a legislative body. Preferably one who is not running for President in two years.
Overall, 2005 was the year that the aura was finally scrubbed off the Administration. Secrecy, torture, war, and incompetence. Maybe 2006 will be better for us all.