Monday, April 25, 2005

Why Not Armor to Support our Troops?

April 25, 2005
Marines From Iraq Sound Off About Want of Armor and Men

On May 29, 2004, a station wagon that Iraqi insurgents had packed with C-4 explosives blew up on a highway in Ramadi, killing four American marines who died for lack of a few inches of steel.

The four were returning to camp in an unarmored Humvee that their unit had rigged with scrap metal, but the makeshift shields rose only as high as their shoulders, photographs of the Humvee show, and the shrapnel from the bomb shot over the top.

"The steel was not high enough," said Staff Sgt. Jose S. Valerio, their motor transport chief, who along with the unit's commanding officers said the men would have lived had their vehicle been properly armored. "Most of the shrapnel wounds were to their heads."

Among those killed were Rafael Reynosa, a 28-year-old lance corporal from Santa Ana, Calif., whose wife was expecting twins, and Cody S. Calavan, a 19-year-old private first class from Lake Stevens, Wash., who had the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, tattooed across his back.

They were not the only losses for Company E during its six-month stint last year in Ramadi. In all, more than one-third of the unit's 185 troops were killed or wounded, the highest casualty rate of any company in the war, Marine Corps officials say.

In returning home, the leaders and Marine infantrymen have chosen to break an institutional code of silence and tell their story, one they say was punctuated not only by a lack of armor, but also by a shortage of men and planning that further hampered their efforts in battle, destroyed morale and ruined the careers of some of their fiercest warriors.

The saga of Company E, part of a lionized battalion nicknamed the Magnificent Bastards, is also one of fortitude and ingenuity. The marines, based at Camp Pendleton in southern California, had been asked to rid the provincial capital of one of the most persistent insurgencies, and in enduring 26 firefights, 90 mortar attacks and more than 90 homemade bombs, they shipped their dead home and powered on. Their tour has become legendary among other Marine units now serving in Iraq and facing some of the same problems.

"As marines, we are always taught that we do more with less," said Sgt. James S. King, a platoon sergeant who lost his left leg when he was blown out of the Humvee that Saturday afternoon last May. "And get the job done no matter what it takes."

The experiences of Company E's marines, pieced together through interviews at Camp Pendleton and by phone, company records and dozens of photographs taken by the marines, show they often did just that. The unit had less than half the troops who are now doing its job in Ramadi, and resorted to making dummy marines from cardboard cutouts and camouflage shirts to place in observation posts on the highway when it ran out of men. During one of its deadliest firefights, it came up short on both vehicles and troops. Marines who were stranded at their camp tried in vain to hot-wire a dump truck to help rescue their falling brothers. That day, 10 men in the unit died.

Sergeant Valerio and others had to scrounge for metal scraps to strengthen the Humvees they inherited from the National Guard, which occupied Ramadi before the marines arrived. Among other problems, the armor the marines slapped together included heavier doors that could not be latched, so they "chicken winged it" by holding them shut with their arms as they traveled.

"We were sitting out in the open, an easy target for everybody," Cpl. Toby G. Winn of Centerville, Tex., said of the shortages. "We complained about it every day, to anybody we could. They told us they were listening, but we didn't see it."

The company leaders say it is impossible to know how many lives may have been saved through better protection, since the insurgents became adept at overcoming improved defenses with more powerful weapons. Likewise, Pentagon officials say they do not know how many of the more than 1,500 American troops who have died in the war had insufficient protective gear.

But while most of Company E's work in fighting insurgents was on foot, the biggest danger the men faced came in traveling to and from camp: 13 of the 21 men who were killed had been riding in Humvees that failed to deflect bullets or bombs.

Toward the end of their tour when half of their fleet had become factory-armored, the armor's worth became starkly clear. A car bomb that the unit's commander, Capt. Kelly D. Royer, said was at least as powerful as the one on May 29 showered a fully armored Humvee with shrapnel, photographs show. The marines inside were left nearly unscathed.

Captain Royer, from Orangevale, Calif., would not accompany his troops home. He was removed from his post six days before they began leaving Ramadi, accused by his superiors of being dictatorial, records show. His defenders counter that his commanding style was a necessary response to the extreme circumstances of his unit's deployment.

Company E's experiences still resonate today both in Iraq, where two more marines were killed last week in Ramadi by the continuing insurgency, and in Washington, where Congress is still struggling to solve the Humvee problem. Just on Thursday, the Senate voted to spend an extra $213 million to buy more fully armored Humvees. The Army's procurement system, which also supplies the Marines, has come under fierce criticism for underperforming in the war, and to this day it has only one small contractor in Ohio armoring new Humvees.

Marine Corps officials disclosed last month in Congressional hearings that they were now going their own way and had undertaken a crash program to equip all of their more than 2,800 Humvees in Iraq with stronger armor. The effort went into production in November and is to be completed at the end of this year.

Defense Department officials acknowledged that Company E lacked enough equipment and men, but said that those were problems experienced by many troops when the insurgency intensified last year, and that vigorous efforts had been made to improve their circumstances.

Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis of Richland, Wash., who commanded the First Marine Division to which Company E belongs, said he had taken every possible step to support Company E. He added that they had received more factory-armored Humvees than any other unit in Iraq.

"We could not encase men in sufficiently strong armor to deny any enemy success," General Mattis said. "The tragic loss of our men does not necessarily indicate failure - it is war."

Trouble From the Start

Company E's troubles began at Camp Pendleton when, just seven days before the unit left for Iraq, it lost its first commander. The captain who led them through training was relieved for reasons his supervisor declined to discuss.

"That was like losing your quarterback on game day," said First Sgt. Curtis E. Winfree.

In Kuwait, where the unit stopped over, an 18-year-old private committed suicide in a chapel. Then en route to Ramadi, they lost the few armored plates they had earmarked for their vehicles when the steel was borrowed by another unit that failed to return it. Company E tracked the steel down and took it back.

Even at that, the armor was mostly just scrap and thin, and they needed more for the unarmored Humvees they inherited from the Florida National Guard.

"It was pitiful," said Capt. Chae J. Han, a member of a Pentagon team that surveyed the Marine camps in Iraq last year to document their condition. "Everything was just slapped on armor, just homemade, not armor that was given to us through the normal logistical system."

The report they produced was classified, but Captain Royer, who took over command of the unit, and other Company E marines say they had to build barriers at the camp - a former junkyard - to block suicide drivers, improve the fencing and move the toilets under a thick roof to avoid the insurgent shelling.

Even some maps they were given to plan raids were several years old, showing farmland where in fact there were homes, said a company intelligence expert, Cpl. Charles V. Lauersdorf, who later went to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency. There, he discovered up-to-date imagery that had not found its way to the front lines.

Ramadi had been quiet under the National Guard, but the Marines had orders to root out an insurgency that was using the provincial capital as a way station to Falluja and Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Paul J. Kennedy, who oversaw Company E as the commander of its Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment.

Before the company's first month was up, Lance Cpl. William J. Wiscowiche of Victorville, Calif., lay dead on the main highway as its first casualty. The Marine Corps issued a statement saying only that he had died in action. But for Company E, it was the first reality check on the constraints that would mark their tour.

Sweeping for Bombs

A British officer had taught them to sweep the roads for bombs by boxing off sections and fanning out troops into adjoining neighborhoods in hopes of scaring away insurgents poised to set off the bombs. "We didn't have the time to do that," said Sgt. Charles R. Sheldon of Solana Beach, Calif. "We had to clear this long section of highway, and it usually took us all day."

Now and then a Humvee would speed through equipped with an electronic device intended to block detonation of makeshift bombs. The battalion, which had five companies in its fold, had only a handful of the devices, Colonel Kennedy said.

Company E had none, even though sweeping roads for bombs was one of its main duties. So many of the marines, like Corporal Wiscowiche, had to rely on their eyes. On duty on March 30, 2004, the 20-year-old lance corporal did not spot the telltale three-inch wires sticking out of the dust until he was a few feet away, the company's leaders say. He died when the bomb was set off.

"We had just left the base," Corporal Winn said. "He was walking in the middle of the road, and all I remember is hearing a big explosion and seeing a big cloud of smoke."

The endless task of walking the highways for newly hidden I.E.D.'s, or improvised explosive devices, "was nerve wracking," Corporal Winn said, and the company began using binoculars and the scopes on their rifles to spot the bombs after Corporal Wiscowiche was killed.

"Halfway through the deployment marines began getting good at spotting little things," Sergeant Sheldon added. "We had marines riding down the road at 60 miles an hour, and they would spot a copper filament sticking out of a block of cement."

General Mattis said troops in the area now have hundreds of the electronic devices to foil the I.E.D.'s.

In parceling out Ramadi, the Marine Corps leadership gave Company E more than 10 square miles to control, far more than the battalion's other companies. Captain Royer said he had informally asked for an extra platoon, or 44 marines, and had been told the battalion was seeking an extra company. The battalion's operations officer, Maj. John D. Harrill, said the battalion had received sporadic assistance from the Army and had given Company E extra help. General Mattis says he could not pull marines from another part of Iraq because "there were tough fights going on everywhere."

Colonel Kennedy said Company E's area was less dense, but the pressure it put on the marines came to a boil on April 6, 2004, when the company had to empty its camp - leaving the cooks to guard the gates - to deal with three firefights.

Ten of its troops were killed that day, including eight who died when the Humvee they were riding in was ambushed en route to assist other marines under fire. That Humvee lacked even the improvised steel on the back where most of the marines sat, Company E leaders say.

"All I saw was sandbags, blood and dead bodies," Sergeant Valerio said. "There was no protection in the back."

Captain Royer said more armor would not have even helped. The insurgents had a .50-caliber machine gun that punched huge holes through its windshield. Only a heavier combat vehicle could have withstood the barrage, he said, but the unit had none. Defense Department officials have said they favored Humvees over tanks in Iraq because they were less imposing to civilians.

The Humvee that trailed behind that day, which did have improvised armor, was hit with less powerful munitions, and the marines riding in it survived by hunkering down. "The rounds were pinging," Sergeant Sheldon said. "Then in a lull they returned fire and got out."

Captain Royer said that he photographed the Humvees in which his men died to show to any official who asked about the condition of their armor, but that no one ever did.

Sergeant Valerio redoubled his effort to fortify the Humvees by begging other branches of the military for scraps. "How am I going to leave those kids out there in those Humvees," he recalled asking himself.

The company of 185 marines had only two Humvees and three trucks when it arrived, so just getting them into his shop was a logistical chore, Sergeant Valerio said. He also worried that the steel could come loose in a blast and become deadly shrapnel.

For the gunners who rode atop, Sergeant Valerio stitched together bulletproof shoulder pads into chaps to protect their legs.

"That guy was amazing," First Sgt. Bernard Coleman said. "He was under a vehicle when a mortar landed, and he caught some in the leg. When the mortar fire stopped, he went right back to work."

A Captain's Fate

Lt. Sean J. Schickel remembers Captain Royer asking a high-ranking Marine Corps visitor whether the company would be getting more factory-armored Humvees. The official said they had not been requested and that there were production constraints, Lieutenant Schickel said.

Recalls Captain Royer: "I'm thinking we have our most precious resource engaged in combat, and certainly the wealth of our nation can provide young, selfless men with what they need to accomplish their mission. That's an erudite way of putting it. I have a much more guttural response that I won't give you."

Captain Royer was later relieved of command. General Mattis and Colonel Kennedy declined to discuss the matter. His first fitness report, issued on May 31, 2004, after the company's deadliest firefights, concluded, "He has single-handedly reshaped a company in sore need of a leader; succeeded in forming a cohesive fighting force that is battle-tested and worthy."

The second, on Sept. 1, 2004, gave him opposite marks for leadership. "He has been described on numerous occasions as 'dictatorial,' " it said. "There is no morale or motivation in his marines." His defenders say he drove his troops as hard as he drove himself, but was wrongly blamed for problems like armor. "Captain Royer was a decent man that was used for a dirty job and thrown away by his chain of command," Sergeant Sheldon said.

Today, Captain Royer is at Camp Pendleton contesting his fitness report, which could force him to retire. Company E is awaiting deployment to Okinawa, Japan. Some members have moved to other units, or are leaving the Marines altogether.

"I'm checking out," Corporal Winn said. "When I started, I wanted to make it my career. I've had enough."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company |

Prosperity for All, not the corporate welfare crowd?

In Praise of Prosperity
By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
Posted on April 25, 2005, Printed on April 25, 2005
Every day, progressives dive headlong into debates over the U.S. economy only to end up angry, defensive, and confused. The problem: few of us realize that the very definition of the terms used in these heated discussions -- for example, "growth" or "competitiveness" -- is loaded against us.

The language of economic competitiveness is not ideologically neutral, but instead designed to promote policies that serve the interests of big corporations and their investors. If progressives want to reframe the debate over America's future, they will have to reframe its very terms. A first step: start talking about prosperity.

When making arguments in support of their favored policies -- be it massive tax cuts or rolling back environmental safeguards -- conservatives focus almost exclusively on economic growth. What most Americans don't understand is that economic growth does not necessarily make us more prosperous as a society.

Consider the research of economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez: while we've witnessed several periods of immense growth in recent decades, the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers -- in other words, most of us -- actually fell by 7 percent between 1973 and 2000.

As Americans, we are raised to believe from an early age that growth is an over-arching imperative of a capitalist economy. You don't have to be an economist to get it -- when graphs point upward, the economy's good. So we are expected to dedicate ourselves to that goal, even if it requires ceding our own personal well-being. Just think about the rhetoric surrounding living wage laws: sacrifice your very basic needs for the good of the corporations, i.e. America. We're all Corporate Citizens, and we have to advance the national project of achieving growth at all costs.

But for progressives, this narrative muddies the waters and obscures questions that are important to all Americans. Growth-related statistics, for example, tell us nothing about inequality. If the wages of 99,990 workers were to decline by a half percent while the fortunes of ten members of the Walton family increased by 20 or 30 billion dollars, the average growth for that population of 100,000 would be quite impressive indeed. But that's little solace for anyone who is not a Walton.

The self-serving politics of growth has grown ever more dominant since the emergence of the new conservative movement under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, creating a lopsided system that increasingly serves the greed of the few at the expense of the well-being of the many. According to Ed Wolff, author of Top Heavy, the share of national wealth controlled by the top 1 percent of households increased from 20.5 percent in 1979 to 38.5 percent in 1998, while the bottom 40 percent of American households experienced a drop in their share of national net worth, from 0.9 percent in 1983 to only 0.2 percent in 1998.

This alarming trend is only going to get worse in George Bush's "Ownership Society." According to the Los Angeles Times, during 2004 and the first couple of months of 2005, wages didn't keep pace with inflation for the first time since the 1990 recession. In other words, working Americans effectively took an across-the-board pay cut -- and, more importantly, at a time when the economy grew by a healthy four percent, and "corporate profits hit record highs as companies got more productivity out of workers while keeping pay raises down."

According to ILO statistics (from 2001), Americans are the most productive workers in the world -- a fact that is often touted by the 'boot-straps' folk on the right as proof of our system's superiority. But we're not the most productive workers per hour; we merely work more hours than any other industrialized country, and our hours increase almost every year. It's the kind of productivity that is built primarily on the backs of the middle class and the poor. Squeezing every last drop of productivity out of working people to maximize growth is the essence of the Wal-Mart model. It's good for the economy, but not for the people who live within it.

The Prosperous Nation

In order to challenge this growth-obsessed narrative, progressives have to do more than point to facts and figures, however damning they might be. They must reframe the debate in terms of prosperity. Prosperity is less concerned about the GDP or per capita income, but the quality of life afforded by a given economy. Within such a discourse, economic growth is still important, not as an end in itself but as a means to achieve true prosperity.

Discussing the economy in terms of a prosperous society opens up the debate to a more inclusive and accurate picture of what Americans want. If our goal were to be the most prosperous nation, we'd be forced to grapple with the fact that the United States ranks the highest among the highly developed countries in each of the seven measures of inequality the index tracks. While we enjoy the second highest GDP in the world (excluding tiny Luxembourg), we rank dead last among the 20 most developed countries in fighting poverty and we're off the chart in terms of the number of Americans living on half of the median income or less.

Among industrialized nations, the United States is at the bottom in functional literacy, even as only about a quarter of Americans graduate from college. Despite spending twice as much per capita on healthcare as most developed countries, only Ireland and Denmark have lower life expectancies. We're number one in the percentage of population without access to healthcare. One of eight Americans don't survive to reach age 60, which leaves us at the bottom of the pile in terms of life expectancy in the developed world.

We're overworked, underpaid, and with little or no financial security. No wonder that the National Institutes of Mental Health found that in any given year, 10 percent of Americans suffer from depression and over 13 percent from some type of anxiety disorder.

We may be rich as hell as a nation, but a great many of us are struggling just to keep it together. A truly prosperous country, on the other hand, ensures the greatest benefits to the greatest number of people.

Prosperity is Competitive

Here's the kicker: a prosperous society is also an economically competitive society. Contrary to what the Bush administration may claim, giving Americans a decent shot at the good life is not incompatible with building a strong economy. The world leader in per capita GDP is Norway, a nation that offers its citizens long vacations, generous paternity leave programs, strict environmental regulations and well-developed social safety net.

According to rankings put out by the World Economic Forum -- an industry group of big multinationals -- the most competitive economy in the world is a social democracy: Finland. So are seven of the 10 most competitive economies in the Forum's Global Competitiveness Index. And seven of the 10 most 'economically free' countries in the Economic Freedom Index -- which is published annually by the uber-conservative Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal -- are social democracies. The Fraser Foundation -- a Canadian version of Heritage -- publishes a similar index and, lo and behold, seven of its 10 most competitive economies are also social democracies.

The next time some right-winger claims social benefits reward laziness and inertia, remember to point to Bernard Wasow's research. The economist with the Century Foundation found that between 1970 and 2000, per capita GDP increased by 64 percent in the United States and 60 percent in France: "In America, [however,] this came about because productivity per worker rose by 38 percent and hours worked per worker rose by 26 percent. In France, it came about because productivity rose by 83 percent while hours worked fell by 23 percent."

Fighting Right-wing Rhetoric

The best antidote to the right's post Cold-War triumphalism is an economic debate that centers not on growth but prosperity. The defeat of Communism was, for many, a vindication not of capitalism generally, but of a Darwinian concept of capitalism following Milton Friedman's model. Today, maintaining economic growth and competitiveness has become conflated with an entire gamut of pro-rich policies: privatization, deregulation, keeping taxes at a level that squeezes government, maintaining low wages and "labor flexibility," and not being too strict about those pesky issues of corporate accountability.

In reality, economic competitiveness is as much a question of technological savvy; the availability of capital; a strong rule of law; a healthy and educated workforce; extensive infrastructure and a good location on global trade routes. In other words, a competitive economy requires greater investment in the public sphere, not less -- especially in education, high-tech R & D and infrastructure .

Conservatives love to make any argument about the effects of their policies into a false debate between capitalism and socialism -- with liberals cast in the role of bona fide pinkos. This is just not true. A progressive vision for America embraces the free market, but also recognizes the need to curb the worst excesses of the system. Capitalism is a lot like Winston Churchill's view of democracy: it's the worst possible arrangement, except for all the others.

Many Americans are tired, stressed out, depressed, hooked on drugs, relatively poorly educated and with few opportunities for a better life. They are ready to hear something new, something other than the usual scare-tactics of the right. Progressives can win the current economic debate by making one simple point: A truly prosperous country ensures the greatest benefits to the greatest number of people.

© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Bob Herbert on the Folly of War

April 25, 2005
The Agony of War

Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good." — Simone Weil

"There's no doubt in my mind that the good Lord has his hands full right now." — The Rev. Ted Oswald at the funeral Mass for Marla Ruzicka

In a horrifying incident that occurred in the spring of 2003, an Iraqi woman threw two of her children, an infant and a toddler, out the window of a car that had been hit accidentally in an American rocket attack. The woman and the rest of her family perished in the black smoke and flames of the wreckage. The toddler, whose name was Zahraa, was severely burned. She died two weeks later.

The infant, named Harah, was not badly hurt. She was photographed recently on the lap of Marla Ruzicka, a young humanitarian-aid worker from California who was herself killed a little over a week ago in the flaming wreckage of a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad.

The vast amount of suffering and death endured by civilians as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has, for the most part, been carefully kept out of the consciousness of the average American. I can't think of anything the Bush administration would like to talk about less. You can't put a positive spin on dead children.

As for the press, it has better things to cover than the suffering of civilians in war. The aversion to this topic is at the opposite extreme from the ecstatic journalistic embrace of the death of one pope and the election of another, and the media's manic obsession with the comings and goings of Martha, Jacko, et al.

There's been hardly any media interest in the unrelieved agony of tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. It's an ugly subject, and the idea has taken hold that Americans need to be protected from stories or images of the war that might be disturbing. As a nation we can wage war, but we don't want the public to be too upset by it.

So the public doesn't even hear about the American bombs that fall mistakenly on the homes of innocent civilians, wiping out entire families. We hear very little about the frequent instances of jittery soldiers opening fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding men, women and children who were never a threat in the first place. We don't hear much about the many children who, for one reason or another, are shot, burned or blown to eternity by our forces in the name of peace and freedom.

Out of sight, out of mind.

This stunning lack of interest in the toll the war has taken on civilians is one of the reasons Ms. Ruzicka, who was just 28 when she died, felt compelled to try to personally document as much of the suffering as she could. At times she would go from door to door in the most dangerous areas, taking down information about civilians who had been killed or wounded. She believed fiercely that Americans needed to know about the terrible pain the war was inflicting, and that we had an obligation to do everything possible to mitigate it.

Her ultimate goal, which Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is pursuing, was to establish a U.S. government office, perhaps in the State Department, to document the civilian casualties of American military operations. That information would then be publicly reported. Compensation would be provided for victims and their families, and the data would be studied in an effort to minimize civilian casualties in future operations.

War is always about sorrow and the deepest suffering. Nitwits try to dress it up in the finery of half-baked rationalizations, but the reality is always wanton bloodshed, rotting flesh and the lifelong trauma of those who are physically or psychically maimed.

More than 600 people attended Ms. Ruzicka's funeral on Saturday in her hometown of Lakeport, Calif. Among them was Bobby Muller, chairman of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. A former Marine lieutenant, he knows something about the agony of war. His spinal cord was severed when he was shot in the back in Vietnam.

He told the mourners: "Marla demonstrated that an individual can make a profound difference in this world. Her life was dedicated to innocent victims of conflict, exactly what she ended up being."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Paul Krugman Blasts Oblivious Republicans

April 25, 2005
The Oblivious Right

According to John Snow, the Treasury secretary, the global economy is in a "sweet spot." Conservative pundits close to the administration talk, without irony, about a "Bush boom."

Yet two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup say that the economy is "only fair" or "poor." And only 33 percent of those polled believe the economy is improving, while 59 percent think it's getting worse.

Is the administration's obliviousness to the public's economic anxiety just partisanship? I don't think so: President Bush and other Republican leaders honestly think that we're living in the best of times. After all, everyone they talk to says so.

Since November's election, the victors have managed to be on the wrong side of public opinion on one issue after another: the economy, Social Security privatization, Terri Schiavo, Tom DeLay. By large margins, Americans say that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and Mr. Bush is the least popular second-term president on record.

What's going on? Actually, it's quite simple: Mr. Bush and his party talk only to their base - corporate interests and the religious right - and are oblivious to everyone else's concerns.

The administration's upbeat view of the economy is a case in point. Corporate interests are doing very well. As a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, over the last three years profits grew at an annual rate of 14.5 percent after inflation, the fastest growth since World War II.

The story is very different for the great majority of Americans, who live off their wages, not dividends or capital gains, and aren't doing well at all. Over the past three years, wage and salary income grew less than in any other postwar recovery - less than a tenth as fast as profits. But wage-earning Americans aren't part of the base.

The same obliviousness explains Mr. Bush's decision to make Social Security privatization his main policy priority. He doesn't talk to anyone outside the base, so he didn't realize what he was getting into.

In retrospect, it was a terrible political blunder: the privatization campaign has quickly degenerated from juggernaut to joke. According to CBS, only 25 percent of the public have confidence in Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about Social Security; 70 percent are "uneasy."

The point is that people sense, correctly, that Mr. Bush doesn't understand their concerns. He was sold on privatization by people who have made their careers in the self-referential, corporate-sponsored world of conservative think tanks. And he himself has no personal experience with the risks that working families face. He's probably never imagined what it would be like to be destitute in his old age, with no guaranteed income.

The same syndrome has been visible on cultural issues. Republican leaders in Congress, who talk only to the religious right, were shocked at the public backlash over their meddling in the Schiavo case. Did I mention that Rick Santorum is 14 points behind his likely challenger?

It all makes you wonder how these people ever ended up running the country in the first place. But remember that in 2000, Mr. Bush pretended to be a moderate, and that in the next two elections he used the Iraq war as a wedge to divide and perplex the Democrats.

In that context, it's worth noting two more poll results: in one taken before the recent resurgence of violence in Iraq, and the administration's announcement that it needs yet another $80 billion, 53 percent of Americans said that the Iraq war wasn't worth it. And 50 percent say that "the administration deliberately misled the public about whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction."

Democracy Corps, the Democratic pollsters, say that there is a "crisis of confidence in the Republican direction for the country." As they're careful to point out, this won't necessarily translate into a surge of support for Democrats.

But Americans are feeling a sense of dread: they're worried about a weak job market, soaring health care costs, rising oil prices and a war that seems to have no end. And they're starting to notice that nobody in power is even trying to deal with these problems, because the people in charge are too busy catering to a base that has other priorities.


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company |