NSA Redux: Ten Stages of a Bush Scandal

02/05/2006 11:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In light of the NSA hearings, I'm reposting - with updates - my December 20th piece on the unfolding of the warrantless spying scandal. Written 72 hours after the story broke, the objective of the post was to illustrate the transparency of the Bush damage control process and to counter what I believed was unwarranted (no pun intended) optimism among many Bush opponents that this was the "big one" and that the administration would suffer the consequences of an audacious power grab.

Stages 1 through 9 have unfolded with the same numbing consistency as previous Bush scandals. The coming days will tell if #10 accurately anticipates the story's denouement...

The Dynamic of a Bush Scandal: How the Spying Story Will Unfold (and Fade)

Originally posted December 20, 2005

The third button on the Daou Report's navigation bar links to the U.S. Constitution, a Constitution many Americans believe is on life support - if not already dead. The cause of its demise is the corrosive interplay between the Bush administration, a bevy of blind apologists, a politically apathetic public, a well-oiled rightwing message machine, lapdog reporters, and a disorganized opposition. The domestic spying case perfectly illuminates the workings of that system. And the unfolding of this story augurs poorly for those who expect it to yield different results from other administration scandals.

Here's why: the dynamic of a typical Bush scandal follows familiar contours:

1. POTUS circumvents the law - an impeachable offense.

Update: Nothing in the 6 weeks since this was written has refuted the basic contention that Bush circumvented the law. In fact, Bush himself has stated that the administration bypassed FISA. Specious GOP talking points and media distractions aside, the simple logic that the White House should have tried to change the law rather than violate it still holds firm. Not to mention that Bush is on the record making entirely misleading statements about wiretapping, behavior that yielded very different results during a Democratic presidency.

2. The story breaks (in this case after having been concealed by a news organization until well after Election 2004).

Update: Still no adequate explanation from the NYT about why this bombshell was kept under wraps until past the election.

3. The Bush crew floats a number of pushback strategies, settling on one that becomes the mantra of virtually every Republican surrogate. These Republicans face down poorly prepped Dem surrogates and shred them on cable news shows.

Update: Not surprisingly, the main strategy the White House has settled on is to politicize the issue as Bush=strong, Dems=weak. The political calculus is that the mere discussion of terrorism helps Bush politically, something that leading Democrats and Democratic 'strategists' buy hook, line and sinker. No matter that Bush has presided over the worst ever attack on American soil, launched a failed war in Iraq, started a so-called "march of freedom" that has installed hardline Islamic regimes across the Mideast, stretched the military to the breaking point, let bin Laden and Zawahri spit in our faces every few months for the past four years, allowed the threat from North Korea and Iran to fester, and created a laughing-stock color-coded system to alert Americans to a threat he's obviously incapable of handling (in light of the disastrous federal response to Katrina).

4. Rightwing attack dogs on talk radio, blogs, cable nets, and conservative editorial pages maul Bush's critics as traitors for questioning the CIC.

Update: The rightwing attack dogs have received some unexpected help. And of course, certain reporters have played along with the farce.

5. The Republican leadership plays defense for Bush, no matter how flagrant the Bush over-reach, no matter how damaging the administration's actions to America's reputation and to the Constitution. A few 'mavericks' like Hagel or Specter risk the inevitable rightwing backlash and meekly suggest that the president should obey the law. John McCain, always the Bush apologist when it really comes down to it, minimizes the scandal.

Update: Like clockwork, here's McCain. Here's Hagel. Here's Specter.

6. Left-leaning bloggers and online activists go ballistic, expressing their all-too-familiar combination of outrage at Bush and frustration that nothing ever seems to happen with these scandals. Several newspaper editorials echo these sentiments but quickly move on to other issues.

Update: Opinion pieces still trickling in ... bloggers still pissed off.

7. A few reliable Dems, Conyers, Boxer, et al, take a stand on principle, giving momentary hope to the progressive grassroots/netroots community. The rest of the Dem leadership is temporarily outraged (adding to that hope), but is chronically incapable of maintaining the sense of high indignation and focus required to reach critical mass and create a wholesale shift in public opinion. For example, just as this mother of all scandals hits Washington, Democrats are still putting out press releases on Iraq, ANWR and a range of other topics, diluting the story and signaling that they have little intention of following through. This allows Bush to use his three favorite weapons: time, America's political apathy, and make-believe 'journalists' who yuck it up with him and ask fluff questions at his frat-boy pressers.

Update: True to form, Democrats missed the political equivalent of the medical "golden hour," that initial opportunity to create a political firestorm and turn the controversy into a crisis. Not to say that there haven't been other opportunities to revive the issue: imagine a fiery SOTU response from a Democrat like Jack Murtha focusing almost entirely on Bush's law-breaking instead of the inoffensive, focus-grouped response from Tim Kaine.

8. Reporters and media outlets obfuscate and equivocate, pretending to ask tough questions but essentially pushing the same narratives they've developed and perfected over the past five years, namely, some variation of "Bush firm, Dems soft." A range of Bush-protecting tactics are put into play, one being to ask ridiculously misleading questions such as "Should Bush have the right to protect Americans or should he cave in to Democratic political pressure?" All the while, the right assaults the "liberal" media for daring to tell anything resembling the truth.

Update: Media Matters chronicles the coverage.

9. Polls will emerge with 'proof' that half the public agrees that Bush should have the right to "protect Americans against terrorists." Again, the issue will be framed to mask the true nature of the malfeasance. The media will use these polls to create a self-fulfilling loop and convince the public that it isn't that bad after all. The president breaks the law. Life goes on.

Update: Sure enough, the polls show a 'divided' public. And of course, the questions are suspect, as demonstrated by this headline, "New Zogby Poll Shows Majority of Americans Support Impeaching Bush for Wiretapping," which tells us what happens when the questions are properly framed.

10. The story starts blending into a long string of administration scandals, and through skillful use of scandal fatigue, Bush weathers the storm and moves on, further demoralizing his opponents and cementing the press narrative about his 'resolve' and toughness. Congressional hearings might revive the issue momentarily, and bloggers will hammer away at it, but the initial hype is all the Democratic leadership and the media can muster, and anyway, it's never as juicy the second time around...

Rinse and repeat.

It's a battle of attrition that Bush and his team have mastered. Short of a major Dem initiative to alter the cycle, to throw a wrench into the system, to go after the media institutionally, this cycle will continue for the foreseeable future.