Liberals sit down with the New York Times the way Catholics enter the confessional: To make a clean breast of their sins and to ask for absolution. Except that the Gray Lady offers no promise of confidentiality.
President Obama has given an interview to the Times magazine that will appear in full only next Sunday. Already, however, his quoted remarks are causing a political earthquake. He confesses that he did not realize there was "no such thing as a shovel-ready project" when he asked the country to borrow $787 billion -- mostly from the Chinese -- in a vain attempt to kick-start a sluggish economy.
Opponents on the hustings have been blasting the President's claim back in early 2009 that without the stimulus spending, unemployment could go as high as 8%. So, his liberal allies in Congress voted him the money because he promised to pour it into "shovel-ready" projects across the land. Visions of infra-structure improvements, roads, tunnels, bridges, schools, and hospitals danced in the heads of credulous liberal lawmakers. They enlisted virtually no Republican support for their massive spending plans.
Now, he says there is no such thing as shovel-ready. How damaging is that? It's devastating.
How damaging was it for George H.W. Bush to agree in October of 1990 to a tax increase? Bush had campaigned against tax increases. But he had gone further. He said: "Read my lips: No new taxes." No candidate for the presidency had ever mentioned his lips in an election campaign before. Read my lips became a watchword for Bush supporters in 1988 as he lunged ahead of the hapless Michael Dukakis.
Soon, all too soon, Bush-in-power betrayed his word. He cited, as an excuse, the very real fact that he had an army of 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, preparing to liberate Kuwait, and that Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress were threatening to cut off supplies to the troops if he did not cave in to their demands for increased taxes.
Conservatives at the time blamed Bush's Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the late Dick Darman, for persuading the President to break his pledged word. Darman was widely quoted in Washington as having said that those were just words that some speechwriter gave the President to say. Perhaps. Still, George Bush nonetheless pronounced those words with his own lips.
With the lightning victory of U.S.-led coalition forces in the battle to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, President Bush's political fortunes seemed to revive. Americans rejoiced at victory parades by our homecoming troops. Mr. Bush's approval rating was an unprecedented 91%. He seemed unstoppable for re-nomination and re-election the next year.
The broken promise on taxes, however, had opened up a seam beneath the waterline of the Good Ship George Bush. When the economy took a dip -- and in comparison to the last two years, it was only a dip -- Bush's ship began seriously to take on water.
Clinton campaign aide James Carville famously said, "It's the economy, stupid." The broken Bush pledge opened the door to the Perot challenge and Bush quickly sank in public esteem. Bill Clinton clobbered him in the Electoral College in 1992.
Good sport that he has always been, the senior Bush has even joked about the retirement excitement of his birthday sky-diving . He says "Bar," his irreverent wife, likes to say she hasn't seen him take a dive like that since the 1992 campaign!
President Obama's admission of "no such thing as a shovel-ready project" has to be seen in the context of Bush's broken "read my lips" pledge. Just as no previous candidate had ever mentioned his lips, no one had ever heard the term "shovel-ready" before. It is Obama's signature phrase. It is central to his administration's claim to have "created or saved" millions of jobs. Last week's jobs report -- the last one we will get before the midterms--says we lost 95,000 jobs in September.
The president has just pulled the rug out from underneath every vulnerable Democratic candidate running for Congress this fall. They stood with him for all that spending. They accepted his word that those projects were shovel-ready. They hitched their wagons to his star. And now, like a shooting star at night, he seems to be burning up on entering the atmospheric realities.
There is one project that is shovel-ready. That's the project of burying the liberal majorities the President has enjoyed these past two years. It seems Barack Obama has his shovel ready for that one.