Back in January, when the Enron scandal threatened to ensnare the Bush administration, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer bragged to NBC's Tom Brokaw after a hard day of managing the news. "Did you notice all the Enron stuff that everybody was asking about? Look what made it on the air -- the business-scandal side of it."
Fleischer had succeeded in burying the political-scandal side of the story, and it was a remarkable professional achievement in the world of spin. Here was an administration that was locked in "a carnal embrace" with Enron: president, vice-president, top economic and political advisers, secretary of the Army, U.S. trade representative -- and more. But the political fallout was barely registering.
Now Fleischer's magic, and President Bush's teflon coating, may finally be fading. The discovery that there were numerous warning signs leading up to the massacre of Sept. 11, that went unheeded, could mark the beginning of a Great Unraveling.
The Bush administration and its allies have shamelessly exploited Sept.11 to get what they want, from mountains of new pork at the Pentagon to Fast Track authority for negotiating new foreign commercial agreements. The latter passed the House by one vote last December, after a threat from House speaker Dennis Hastert: "This Congress will either support our president -- who's fighting a courageous war on terrorism and redefining American world leadership -- or it will undercut the president at the worst possible time."
They have been quick to question the patriotism of their opponents, and it has worked. The Democratic leadership was cowed into silence, which gave President Bush very high approval ratings -- they remain at 76 percent. Many observers attribute these results to the "War Against Terrorism," but this is exaggerated. A public that hears only praise and no criticism will predictably answer "yes" to pollsters who ask whether the president is doing a good job.
This unfortunate dynamic has encouraged a president who couldn't get a majority of the popular vote to govern as though he had won an overwhelming mandate from the electorate.
Vice President Dick Cheney has lashed out hard at his critics, calling their actions "thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."
But it's not working any more. The Democrats softened their rhetoric, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is still demanding that an independent commission be set up to investigate what our government knew and did before Sept. 11.
The Bush administration has been less than forthright about what was known about possible attacks, and when it became known. For example, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters last week that U.S. intelligence officials were focused on overseas threats in the months prior to Sept. 11. But according to the Washington Post, a secret briefing memo presented to President Bush on August 6 -- headlined "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." -- was focused on attacks within the United States.
Meanwhile, Senator Joseph Lieberman is threatening to subpoena White House officials for information on their contacts with Enron officials. And there is yet another scandal in the making, over the role of the administration in supporting the military coup last month against the democratically elected president of Venezuela.
This is currently under internal investigation at the State Department and Pentagon, and Senate hearings could follow. Lest anyone think that foreign policy scandals don't have legs, recall that the Iran-Contra investigation came close to toppling the Reagan presidency in 1987. Ironically, two of the suspects in the Venezuelan coup are re-treads from Iran-Contra: Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich and National Security Council official Elliot Abrams, who was convicted of lying to Congress.
The Bush administration may survive all of these challenges and more. But once the teflon is gone, its whole agenda could very well collapse. Most Americans are concerned with bread-and-butter issues, such as prescription drug costs, health insurance, and education -- issues for which this administration offers them nothing. Cheney's vision of a war without end, a replacement for the Cold War that will justify any overseas military adventure -- Iraq, Somalia, Colombia -- appeals to the national security establishment and some private sector beneficiaries. But it won't attract many voters.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.