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An Agnew-Nixon Solution?
Editorial
July 15, 2002

It is growing obvious to many Americans – from Wall Street to Main Street – that George W. Bush is not up to the awesome job of the presidency of the United States. Though his united-we-stand poll numbers remain high, there can be little dispute that his 18 months in office have been among the most disastrous in U.S. history.

From Bush’s swearing-in despite losing the national popular vote, through the first act of war on the U.S. mainland in modern times, to the shattered confidence in U.S. securities markets and the resurgence of the national debt, the slide has been steep and seemingly unstoppable. In particular, Bush appears clue-less what to do about the economy.

Still, no one seems willing to ask two relevant questions: What further damage can the nation expect over the next 30 months of Bush’s term? And is there a constitutional way to spare the country that experience by easing Bush out of office, especially given that a plurality of American voters wanted Al Gore in the White House, not Bush?

Just asking the questions might help focus the thinking of Bush's economic advisers and give them a fresh incentive to review some of their faltering policies.

Corporate Experience

A year and a half into the job, Bush doesn’t appear to be getting better at one of the president’s most important duties, bolstering the U.S. economy. During the campaign, Bush touted himself as the MBA candidate who had spent years in corporate boardrooms, although his success was more in getting bailed out by his father’s friends than in actually turning a profit.

Bush now has put his reverse-Midas touch on display at the national level. He held a poorly received press conference on July 8 as he took on what he called corporate “mal-fee-ance.” He followed that on July 9 with a lackluster speech on corporate responsibility that drew attention to the hypocrisy of him condemning insider loans and other practices that he himself enjoyed during his business career.

Wall Street, with its cold-eyed look at near-term expectations for making or losing money, promptly pointed the blue-chip Dow Industrial Index downward, as it fell nearly 700 points for the week. Since Bush took office on Jan. 20, 2001, the Dow has fallen 18 percent, the broader S&P 500 has dropped 31 percent and the technology-heavy Nasdaq has been cut in half.

Bush’s reaction to the worsening losses was to wave the bloody flag of Sept. 11 as a way to playing down the significance of the nation’s economic pain.

“As a result of the evil done to America (on Sept. 11), there’s going to be some incredible good here at home, too,” Bush said in a speech in Minneapolis on July 11. “I believe people have taken a step back and asked, ‘What’s important in life?’

“You know, the bottom line and this corporate America stuff, is that important? Or is serving your neighbor, loving your neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself?”

While Bush’s invocation of Sept. 11 and the Golden Rule may have won him some political points, his comments offered little solace to the millions of Americans whose savings have been devastated by the stock market declines during Bush’s tenure.

More than one half of American households are invested in the stock market through retirement funds, mutual funds and direct stock ownership. To them, the trillions of dollars in losses from what Bush calls “this corporate America stuff’’ mean retirement plans ruined, family vacations canceled, college tuitions that can’t be paid, and sudden layoffs by companies whose market value has collapsed. Dreams, big and small, are being dashed.

Falling Markets

Certainly, some of the problems in the economy predated Bush’s arrival, and the markets might not continue these precipitous declines in the months ahead. But Wall Street’s slump on Bush’s watch is not a coincidence either.

When it comes to the success of the national economy, Washington does matter. Smart government policies help. Stupid ones hurt. Government investment in national infrastructure – such as building the interstate highway system in the 1950s – can lay the groundwork for economic advances. A wise balance between government regulation and a free market also is vital.

Three fundamental points underpinned the tripling of stock prices when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Gore were in office. They worked to bring the world together as a common market, with U.S. companies in the lead. They supported government investment in the Internet and other technologies to create a climate for businesses to innovate and profit. (Remember their personal visits to schools to wire them up for the Internet, a project that Gore had pushed since his years in Congress.) And, they brought the soaring federal budget deficits under control, freeing up capital for investment.

Campaign 2000 was muddied by many trivial or bogus issues, such as the color of Gore’s clothing and Bush’s supposed dignity. But the election also represented a choice between a continuation of the Clinton-Gore vision or a change to Bush’s laissez-faire approach.

Bush called for tax cuts weighted to the wealthy, less government activism on the economy, and repudiation of multilateralism. Bush opposed working with other nations on mandatory standards to address global warming, for instance.

By contrast, Gore wanted more government investment in technologies with the goal of developing fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources and other job-creating projects. He also favored broader cooperation with other nations to reduce world tensions and address environmental problems.

The American people narrowly chose Gore, giving him more than a half-million-vote edge over Bush. Gore also stood a strong chance of winning a recount in the key state of Florida, when Bush rushed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 9, 2000, and got five political allies to stop the counting of votes. (Later, a group of news organizations conducted an unofficial recount of legally cast votes in Florida and found that Gore carried the state by a tiny margin regardless of what kind of “chads” were counted, whether dimpled, partially perforated or fully punched through. See "So Bush Did Steal the White House," at Consortiumnews.com)

The Bush Effect

On Jan. 20, 2001, Bush moved into the White House and began implementing his economic strategy.

He won a $1.3 trillion-plus tax cut, installed anti-regulatory regulators in key offices, and pulled the U.S. out of international efforts, such as the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. Bush’s interest in the outside world focused on securing oil and other raw materials needed for the U.S. economy. He essentially was offering a mid-20th Century vision with none of the new ideas that had been the life-blood of the historic bull market of the 1990s.

The Sept. 11 attacks, which the Bush administration failed to prevent, made matters worse by deepening the divisions in the world, especially between the United States and Muslim countries. Many of the one-billion-plus Islamic adherents see Bush’s “crusade” to rid the world of “evil” as aimed at them.

Though Bush denied any religious overtones, the mass arrests of hundreds of Islamic men in the United States and Bush’s strong support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s crackdown on Palestinian militants left many Muslims increasingly alienated from the U.S. Instead of more commerce with Islamic countries, U.S. businessmen shied away from the physical dangers of Pakistan and saw their products facing boycotts in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries.

“This is getting very serious,” said Mahmoud El Kaissouni, an executive at fast-food franchisee Americana Foods in Cairo, in June. “Some (U.S.) chains are experiencing 50 percent losses (in sales). We’re just trying to survive.” [USA Today, June 26, 2002]

Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq and his inclusion of Iran as part of his “Axis of Evil” suggests to Wall Street more turmoil ahead in Muslim countries. Instead of a world coalescing into a prosperous common market, investors are looking at a world splintering apart, which means diminished prospects for business growth – what the stock market roughly measures. In other words, declining stock prices are adjusting to the future that the Bush administration is presenting.

Red Ink

On the federal budget, Bush has played the role of “sorcerer’s apprentice.” He has transformed record budget surpluses – that held out the promise of a debt-free U.S. government – into a new flood of red ink. His administration now projects a federal deficit for this fiscal year of $165 billion while congressional experts say the number may end up closer to $200 billion. The budget that Bush inherited from Clinton, ending last Sept. 30, had a $127 billion surplus.

The prominent billboard in New York City that for years kept a running tabulation of the mounting U.S. debt was turned off the last two years as the numbers started going down. Now, it's been flicked back on, with the again-rising debt set at $6.1 trillion. [NYT, July 13, 2002]

Bush also has failed to restore investor confidence in the U.S. securities markets rocked by accounting scandals. The cascade of stunning financial restatements started last fall with Bush’s friends at Enron Corp. and has continued through reports of cooked books at WorldCom Inc.

While trying to talk tough about corporate abuses, Bush found himself in a compromising position. On July 8, he was asked by reporters about an income restatement at Harken Energy Corp. while Bush was a director on the audit committee. The president responded, “All I can tell you is that in the corporate world, sometimes things aren’t exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures.”

Other Bush-proposed “reforms” clashed with his personal past practices. Bush demanded prompt disclosures on insider stock sales, yet some of his Harken sales were reported up to eight months late. In his July 9 speech, he called on companies to stop granting loans to corporate officers, though he benefited from low-interest loans while at Harken.

Bush’s drive to bolster the integrity of U.S. markets also was undercut by disclosures that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Halliburton Corp.’s accounting practices that may have inflated revenue while Vice President Dick Cheney was the chief executive officer. From the years of that questionable revenue, Cheney reaped millions of dollars in stock options and bonuses.

The Agnew-Nixon Option

So what can the nation do if the stock markets continue to grind downward, unemployment continues to rise and the government debt continues to swell – all while Bush flounders? Is there a way to bring in a new president who can inspire confidence or offer fresh ideas for getting the country back on track? Is it really “unthinkable” to suggest that Bush step aside for the good of the country?

One potential way out for the nation would be a creative use of the Agnew-Nixon model with the sequential resignation of Cheney, the appointment of a new vice president and then Bush’s resignation.

That sequence enabled the country to extract itself from the Watergate debacle following the 1972 election. First, Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was facing corruption charges from his days prior to the vice presidency, resigned on Oct. 10, 1973. Then, Rep. Gerald Ford, R-Mich., was approved as Agnew’s replacement under the terms of the 25th Amendment. Next, Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, ending what President Ford memorably called “our long national nightmare.”

A Cheney-Bush scenario would have similarities to the Agnew-Nixon situation as well as differences.

Both Nixon and Bush had a cloud over their electoral legitimacy. Though Nixon won in a landslide in 1972, the Watergate disclosures showed that his re-election campaign had engaged in systematic dirty tricks to undermine potential Democratic challengers. In effect, Nixon arranged for the election to be between himself and George McGovern, the Democrat whom Nixon considered easiest to defeat.

Bush’s electoral legitimacy might be even more tainted. Having lost the national popular vote to Gore and facing potential defeat in the Electoral College if all legal votes were counted in Florida, Bush dispatched Republican hooligans to Miami to intimidate vote counters. When a statewide recount was ordered anyway, Bush got five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop it, an unprecedented act in U.S. history.

Cheney is not facing the kind of criminal charge that destroyed Agnew's career. But besides the cloud over accounting practices at Halliburton, Cheney has suffered multiple heart attacks.

The first phase of an Agnew-Nixon solution would be for Cheney to step down. A Cheney resignation would let Bush pick a new vice president, who would need approval by both houses of Congress.

That choice could go to a widely respected Republican, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has been at the forefront of the battle to reform U.S. accounting practices. Also, as a Vietnam-era war hero, McCain would have a more subtle understanding about the dangers of world conflict than Bush, who sat out the Vietnam War in the National Guard and appears even to have skipped a year of required guard duty. [Boston Globe, May 23, 2000]

A Divided Term

Another option would be to pick Gore, who arguably won Election 2000. Gore has possibly the broadest experience in coordinating government-and-business policies to achieve powerful growth for the U.S. economy. At Clinton’s side, Gore also saw how to bring what looked like uncontrollable budget deficits under control.

The choice of Gore also would reflect America's tradition of fair play. If Bush were to resign after two years, the presidency would have, in effect, been split between the two men who ran a close race in 2000. A divided presidential term also would give the American people a chance to judge Gore's performance before 2004. If Gore can't turn the economy around, he could be booted out after two years, too.

Granted, this Agnew-Nixon solution for easing Bush out of office is a highly unlikely scenario. But is it any stranger than the Republican drive to impeach Clinton over lying about a consensual sex act? Is it any more shocking than the U.S. Supreme Court blocking ballots of American citizens from being counted and having the popular-vote loser installed as president?

The political bottom line is that the American people did not elect George W. Bush. So, they have reasonable cause to expect a change in the White House if he is found incapable of addressing the nation’s problems.

The biggest obstacle to an Agnew-Nixon solution, however, would be Bush and his powerful family. In Election 2000, Bush often acted as if he were entitled to the presidency regardless of the people’s judgment. He once joked, "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier -- so long as I'm the dictator."

For those reasons, senior members of both parties as well as business leaders would have to intervene to get Bush to voluntarily step aside. They would have to persuade Bush that his resignation – at least pending a possible election rematch with Gore in 2004 – would be best for the country.

While the odds of such an eventuality are long indeed, it may be time for Americans to begin weighing constitutional alternatives to another 30 months of a Bush presidency. An Agnew-Nixon solution – and a quick reversal of Bush’s economic policies – could spare the people far worse consequences down the road.

At minimum, a national debate about the Agnew-Nixon option might instill some urgency in the Bush administration's thinking about a realistic strategy for turning around the economy. Nothing concentrates a politician's mind like the prospect of being put out of office.

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