In mid-January 2005, President Bush declared that the 2004 election had been his "accountability moment." He spoke a bit too soon. The "moment," it turned out, lasted for the following 12 months. The President didn't see it coming. And who could blame him? For more than three years after 9/11, the American public had given the Administration, and indeed many authority figures, the benefit of the doubt. We were at war, even in mortal danger. Trust was essential. The bigwigs kept assuring us they knew what they were doing. And so most of us went along.
2005 was the year we stopped going along. We gave up blind trust and demanded real accountability. We finally had it with a war in which Bush's bromides didn't even begin to match the facts on the ground. We wanted answers and detail and a plan for victory. We began to get one in the past month or so, as the President finally started to give more candid speeches in front of general audiences, even taking unscripted questions! He acknowledged "setbacks" in Iraq and wrong prewar intelligence, predicted violence ahead, asked for persistence and cited tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi deaths.
It was a strange kind of relief, but relief it was. Some of us had wondered if this man, who had so steadfastly refused to match rhetoric with reality for so long, would ever finally hit a wall he couldn't deny, a fact he couldn't dismiss, a world he couldn't fully control. We wonder no more. Bush's signature second-term domestic agenda--Social Security reform--died a pitiless, lingering death in 2005, as the public simply refused to buy it. His gleeful opening of the fiscal spigot--the biggest increase in public spending since F.D.R.--got deficit hawks squawking enough to force the first tiny potential cuts in pork, if nowhere near enough to control the looming debt. The Republican congressional guru, Tom DeLay, discovered that gerrymandering districts in Texas could lead to a Supreme Court challenge and that money-laundering campaign cash could lead to an indictment. Karl Rove lost some sleep over Patrick Fitzgerald. The President's argument that he didn't authorize torture but that he would veto any law that forbade it tanked so badly in the Congress that he had to capitulate and co-opt the McCain anti-torture amendment in full.
These weren't setbacks. They were outright, no-spin defeats: thrilling, fleeting moments when democracy actually seemed to work, when the powerful were forced to concede the limits of their own clout and spin. Katrina was the turning point, the moment when the extent of cronyism, incompetence and sheer smugness in Washington reached a level that even the White House couldn't ignore. FEMA's Michael Brown, the American people surmised with their wide-open eyes, was not doing a "heck of a job." And a President who could say such a thing obviously had no clue about what was going on in his own government.