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It’s back to the problems.

Recent events have once again proved the truism that it’s easy
to run for office, it’s hard to govern — especially when you’re an arrogant
fellow pursuing bad policies. For George W. Bush, knocking off John Kerry was
a swagger on the beach compared to dealing with the real stuff. All Bush had
to do was lie about Kerry, deride him, make promises he can’t keep, talk tough,
and mount an under-the-radar effort to motivate millions of fundamentalist Christian
voters who (for some reason) obsess over gay marriage. That’s nada compared
to, say, winning the war in Iraq.

Once the election dust settled, the Bush gang looked like country-bumpkin
first-termers. It botched the appointment of one of the most important Cabinet
members: secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The Bush White House
did this by racing ahead with Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner
and a Rudy Giuliani crony. It’s not only that Bush’s vetters missed Kerik’s
nanny problem. They apparently did not even do a Nexis search on the guy. Had
they done so, they would have learned he was a nomination disaster waiting to
happen. As New York City prisoner commissioner, he had diverted rebates from
cigarette sales in prisons to an obscure foundation he ran. He had been entangled
with a New Jersey construction firm with alleged mob ties. His leadership of
the NYPD after 9/11 was dubbed “scandalous” by John Lehman, a Republican
member of the independent 9/11 commission. He had been in charge of police training
in Iraq — hardly a triumph. He had an arrest warrant issued against him in conjunction
with a civil legal dispute. He was sued, in separate cases, for retaliating
against a corrections official who backed a Democrat and against others who
were in disputes with a corrections official with whom he was allegedly having
an extramarital affair. He had parlayed his political connections and received
millions of dollars from a company that did business with the Department of
Homeland Security. And there was more. He was lucky he had a nanny he could
hide behind.

The Kerik blunder was not the White House’s only Cabinet-level
screwup. Bush officials sent clear signals they wanted Treasury Secretary John
Snow to hit the road. Then Bush announced Snow was staying put. This was no
way for a president to treat the head of his economic team. After all, this
is the guy who has to come out before the press and the business community and
perform an all-important task: fudge the numbers. Can he do so effectively if
he’s peeved?

Then Bush got caught tapping the phones of Mohammed ElBaradei,
head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Come on. If you’re going to
play this game, do it well and don’t be found out. Worse (for Bush), the taps
produced nothing the White House could use to force ElBaradei out of his post.
The Bushies consider him too soft on Iran, and some Bush aides have been angling
for his ouster. But they are probably also mad at him because ElBaradei showed
them up. Before the invasion of Iraq, ElBaradei and his weapons inspectors declared
there were no indications that Saddam Hussein had been reviving his nuclear
weapons program. Yet Bush, Dick Cheney and their posse had claimed Hussein had
been “reconstituting” his nuclear program. Now it’s clear the International
Atomic Energy Agency was right and Bush was wrong. So the obvious response from
Bush is, off with his head!

Bush is facing trouble in Iran. Military experts tell me there
are few effective military options for the Bush hawks. The Iranian nuclear weapons
program — to the extent it exists — is probably dispersed, based in civilian
areas and located deep underground. It is no easy target. And Iran — bigger
and stronger than Iraq — is not invasion material, especially when U.S. forces
are stretched thin next door. So what’s a saber-rattling pre-emptionist to do?
Ditto for North Korea.

Meanwhile, Iraq is not getting any easier. Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld became the administration’s Bonehead Number One when he dismissed
a soldier’s question about the lack of armor for the troops. Throughout the
election, the Bush campaign denied Kerry’s charge that Bush had not provided
enough armor for the troops. It’s not too tough to spin reporters; it’s more
difficult to spin unprotected soldiers. And on the first anniversary of Saddam
Hussein’s capture — remember when war backers hailed that development as the
beginning of the end of the insurrection? — eight U.S. Marines were killed in
different battles in Iraq. In one piece of good news for Bush, this bad news
was chronicled by the Washington Post in a brief story on Page A17. (Scott
Peterson still rates more media attention than dead American GIs.) As the January
elections approach, the security situation in Iraq appears to be worsening.
And the six-mile stretch of highway from the Green Zone in Baghdad to the international
airport remains too dangerous for U.S. officials to travel. Doom-and-gloom is
the official position of the CIA. The agency’s station chief in Baghdad sent
a cable in late November — which was leaked within two weeks — that offered
a bleak view, noting security in Iraq is likely to deteriorate further. Just
in time for the elections. The intelligence reform bill passed by Congress will
not be of much help.

Then there’s Social Security. For some odd reason, Bush seems
to be serious about his promise to partially privatize Social Security. That
is, he’s still talking about it after the election. There appears to be no way
for Bush to enact such a scheme without racking up $2 trillion in transition
costs. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich are projected to yield trillions of dollars
in national debt, yet this explosion of red ink never became a hot topic during
the presidential campaign. Will another $2 trillion in Bush-created debt finally
pose him political trouble? Perhaps. At the same time, the folks around him
have started to hint that retirement benefits may have to drop by 6 percent,
even after supposed gains from private accounts are added to the picture. So
let’s see: more debt, lower benefits. Sounds like a winner. No wonder several
Senate Republicans have said they won’t support any Social Security legislation
unless it is also endorsed by Democrats. They want political cover. Yet the
conservative House Republicans have expressed no interest in negotiating with
their Democratic colleagues. Can Bush navigate the political land mines? I’d
rather choke on a pretzel.

During the campaign, I happened to share a long airplane ride
with one of Kerry’s top advisers. Several hours into our conversation, he told
me that every once in a while Kerry would ask him, “What the fuck are we
going to do?” Kerry had in mind Iraq and a Kerry victory. Thanks to Ohio,
he does not have the burden of devising an answer to his own query. But Bush
does — and not merely on Iraq. He’s facing a boatload of ugly challenges and
dilemmas. Democrats ought not to be too giddy about this, for Bush has demonstrated
that when the going gets tough he is perfectly able to commit gigantic blunders
with bad consequences for all and no punishment for him. But he is not going
to be able to escape his problems by hitting the campaign trail. As an in-over-his-head
president once said, “It’s hard work.”

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