I just read a story from US News & World Report about how former Bush aides are saying “the administration is deep into lame-duck status,” and I was thinking about how weird that is. For me, a president should be at his strongest when he doesn’t have to worry about elections anymore and can do any damn thing he wants. But instead, we read about how the Bush admin is just shutting down, as if things are already over.
But it’s not just Bush. I remember the same kind of aura around Clinton, as if the president becomes pointless after his final mid-term election. And while Clinton was never as insignificant as Bush seems to be getting, there was certainly a lame-duckness on him towards the end. And again, that makes no sense to me, as it should be exactly the opposite.
But then one line in the story got me, and it started making more sense to me. It was when a former Bush communications advisor said “Nobody's paying attention to them. That's why the press and Washington is already so focused on the 2008 race. It's over.”
But I think he’s got it backwards. The press isn’t focused on 2008 because Bush is a lame-duck. He’s a lame-duck because the press is focused on 2008. And the reason is simple: These people don’t care about politics, as much as they care about the horserace. Which is why most election coverage sounds far more like a sports story than a political story.
And so when they cover politics, it’s always in regards to who’s going to win and how each event is going to impact the upcoming race. And after a president’s second mid-term, there are no more upcoming races for them; and so they get left behind as everyone keeps focusing on the next race. Imagine a star baseball player who retires but continues to practice with the team for spring training. People will discuss him in terms of how the team will replace him, but they’re no longer interested in what he’ll be doing for the team. His injuries and training are no longer important and he’ll be relegated to personal interest stories, assuming they write about him at all.
Even with Clinton, I suspect that the reason he remained as significant as he was was primarily due to the drama that always surrounded him. Sure, he used the spotlight to push his policy agenda; which was partially designed to distract from his personal woes; but it was his personal woes that kept him in the media spotlight, and thus allowed him to remain significant.
And even as much as Bush is covered in the media, it’s only as far as the scandals and blunders go, and his ability to hide them. Were Iraq to have ended disastrously last year, it’s doubtful that Bush would be given even as much media attention as he gets already. Without the horserace, there really is much the media likes to talk about. They don’t really like politics and are bored with policy. But elections are endless fun. The moment one ends, they’re already discussing the next one.
And so that’s what makes the president a lame-duck. It begins after the re-election, and solidifies after the second mid-term. Everyone’s so focused on the next election that the president gets forgotten about. Not that I’d prefer for a president to act as a loose-cannon in his final two years (especially not Bush, who wasn’t such a tight cannon to begin with); but I’d prefer if the media could restrain its sports coverage of elections enough to allow our elected leaders to finish their terms. Apparently, a president in the woods without a press corp just isn’t really the president.