An enterprising newspaper reporter once confronted the late-British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about what was the most important factor in dictating how he governed.
“Events, dear boy. Events,” Macmillan deadpanned.
Truer words are rarely spoken.
Many argue that Hurricane Katrina was the beginning of the end for the Bush Administration. Of course, it was September 11th that gave President Bush the direction he needed. President Clinton never really found his mojo until Republicans seized control of Congress in 1995. A series of blizzards flattened Chicago in the late 1970s. The crippling storms became synonymous with the ineffective administration of Mayor Michael Bilandic. Jane Byrne unseated Bilandic in 1979. And many believe that the Iranian hostage crisis amplified perceptions of President Carter’s weakness.
Events, dictating political fortune.
Two, major “events” are pressing against the body politic now: the oil spill near the Gulf Coast and last weekend’s failed car bomb in Times Square. And the chattering class is chirping about similarities between these events and Hurricane Katrina, Three Mile Island, terrorist sleeper cells and Guantanamo Bay.
Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. The Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats are on tenterhooks. Could the public somehow pin blame on them for either the oil spill or Times Square? After all, “they’re” in charge here. Meantime, Republicans are nimbly dissecting both events for possible Democratic vulnerabilities. However, Republicans know they can’t push too hard. Otherwise, the public could perceive them as opportunists. The GOP needs to show restraint. After all, it appears a terrorist attack was averted and police have a the primary suspect in custody.
So official Washington lithely gauges both scenarios for gain or peril. Both parties are haunted by six, cryptic words: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” Democrats want no Michael Browns. And Republicans are practically begging for one.
“I think the Republicans are going to carp about whatever is done frankly,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “And that’s their responsibility from their perspective. Particularly in this political year.”
After the Times Square incident, some Republicans immediately began to query if police read suspect Faisal Shahzad his Miranda rights.
“If someone acts like a terrorist and cooperates with people intent on war against the United States, they should be treated as terrorists and not as a common criminal” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). “They should not be read their Miranda rights.”
“This is a U.S. citizen, arrested on U.S. soil, subject to the constitutional protections and constraints of every U.S. citizen,” countered Hoyer. “I think this is pretty-well settled law.”
But that didn’t stop Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to team with Reps. Jason Altmire (D-PA) and Charlie Dent (R-PA) from introducing a bill to revoke the citizenship of Americans who assist foreign terror organizations.
“Those who join such groups join our enemy and should be deprived of the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship,” Lieberman said in a statement.
There are now questions about how an FBI surveillance team lost track of Shahzad and why he was able to board a plane bound for Dubai after being placed on the government’s no-fly list. In fact, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) asserted that the Obama Administration was only working to outwit the terrorists “in spurts.”
“There are many in this town who will focus on (terrorism) only as long as the media covers it,” Cantor said.
Republicans augmented their thesis by seizing on Democratic assertions that the country was “lucky” to have averted disaster in Times Square.
“In this case we were fortunate. In the Timothy McVeigh case, we weren’t,” said Hoyer, referring to the man responsible for the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK. “You’ve got to do everything you possibly can and then pray you get also lucky.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) took issue with the Lady Luck defense.
“We have been lucky. But luck is not an effective strategy for fighting terrorism,” Boehner said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tried to clamp down on GOP suggestions that Obama Administration caught a break.
“Oh please,” sighed the speaker when a reporter asked her about the ‘luck’ defense. “The harder we work, the luckier we get. I think that’s probably the point. I don’t think anybody accused them of being lucky when the Millennium plot was foiled now ten years ago.
Certainly there are legitimate questions to be asked about errors that Shahzad to nearly escape. But Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) took particular aim at those who attempt to exploit the near-calamity for political benefit.
“Anyone who has talked to our counter-terrorism and military personnel knows these men and women are not just ‘lucky,’ they are very good at what they do,” said Reed.
Detecting the political nuances of the oil spill are even more subtle than the foiled Times Square plot.
Earlier in the week, Pelosi argued that despite the rig explosion, it was still essential for Congress to approve an energy and climate measure. Boehner used the occasion to say that the U.S. should advocate an “all of the above” strategy, where it comprehensively mines all energy sources.
But there were hints that the politics of the oil spill could become partisan as well.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, hinted at what he thought of BP after executives briefed lawmakers behind closed doors Tuesday.
“BP is now known as British Petroleum,” Markey said. He then said that if the leak isn’t shut off soon “it will be known as Bayou Polluter.”
Markey and other lawmakers plan a hearing next week to investigate what went wrong on the rig. And the Massachusetts Democrat underscored the divide between some Democrats skeptical of “big oil” and Republicans leery of “environmentalists.”
“There is going to be a blistering, scalding indictment of the practices the industry was engaged in,” Markey said.
Then the GOP challenged Markey.
“We cannot allow the environmental left to exploit this tragedy,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN).
Meantime, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), who visited the oil spill Friday, expressed concern about the role of the Obama administration in the disaster. He wants to know about the involvement of the Interior Department before the April explosion.
“That too is going to be a part of our investigation,” Burgess said. “I’m disappointed that no one from the administration is scheduled to be at our hearing.”
Pence joined Burgess in his criticism of how the federal government handled the accident.
“People deserve to know why the administration was slow to respond,” said Pence.
But Pence and Burgess didn’t seem to sing from the same hymnal as Boehner on who to blame.
“I don’t think we have all of the answers of what happened,” said Boehner, noting that he wanted to learn more “before we start to point fingers and play the typical Washington game.”
And Democrats like Steny Hoyer, defended the Obama Administration. He said the government responded “decisively and quickly.”
So political fates are hinged to two, major events. But in both cases, Democrats and Republicans are trying to seize both episodes. Democrats want to calm already rattled voters. And Republicans are trying to cast doubt, if not incite alarm.
In both cases, both parties are guilty of some spin.
Harold Macmillan was right. Events do influence government. But I would add some thing to Macmillan’s dictum. “Spin, dear boy. Spin.” After all, it’s the spin applied to those events that ultimately determines if they were a political success. Or a fiasco.