By PAUL KRUGMAN
Let me be frank: it has been a long political nightmare. For some of us, daily life has remained safe and comfortable, so the nightmare has merely been intellectual: we realized early on that this administration was cynical, dishonest and incompetent, but spent a long time unable to get others to see the obvious. For others - above all, of course, those Americans risking their lives in a war whose real rationale has never been explained - the nightmare has been all too concrete.
So is the nightmare finally coming to an end? Yes, I think so. I have no idea whether Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, will bring more indictments in the Plame affair. In any case, I don't share fantasies that Dick Cheney will be forced to resign; even Karl Rove may keep his post. One way or another, the Bush administration will stagger on for three more years. But its essential fraudulence stands exposed, and it's hard to see how that exposure can be undone.
What do I mean by essential fraudulence? Basically, I mean the way an administration with an almost unbroken record of policy failure has nonetheless achieved political dominance through a carefully cultivated set of myths.
The record of policy failure is truly remarkable. It sometimes seems as if President Bush and Mr. Cheney are Midases in reverse: everything they touch - from Iraq reconstruction to hurricane relief, from prescription drug coverage to the pursuit of Osama - turns to crud. Even the few apparent successes turn out to contain failures at their core: for example, real G.D.P. may be up, but real wages are down.
The point is that this administration's political triumphs have never been based on its real-world achievements, which are few and far between. The administration has, instead, built its power on myths: the myth of presidential leadership, the ugly myth that the administration is patriotic while its critics are not. Take away those myths, and the administration has nothing left.
Well, Katrina ended the leadership myth, which was already fading as the war dragged on. There was a time when a photo of Mr. Bush looking out the window of Air Force One on 9/11 became an iconic image of leadership. Now, a similar image of Mr. Bush looking out at a flooded New Orleans has become an iconic image of his lack of connection. Pundits may try to resurrect Mr. Bush's reputation, but his cult of personality is dead - and the inscription on the tombstone reads, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Meanwhile, the Plame inquiry, however it winds up, has ended the myth of the administration's monopoly on patriotism, which was also fading in the face of the war.
Apologists can shout all they like that no laws were broken, that hardball politics is nothing new, or whatever. The fact remains that officials close to both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush leaked the identity of an undercover operative for political reasons. Whether or not that act was illegal, it was clearly unpatriotic.
And the Plame affair has also solidified the public's growing doubts about the administration's morals. By a three-to-one margin, according to a Washington Post poll, the public now believes that the level of ethics and honesty in the government has declined rather than risen under Mr. Bush.
So the Bush administration has lost the myths that sustained its mojo, and with them much of its power to do harm. But the nightmare won't be fully over until two things happen.
First, politicians will have to admit that they were misled. Second, the news media will have to face up to their role in allowing incompetents to pose as leaders and political apparatchiks to pose as patriots.
It's a sad commentary on the timidity of most Democrats that even now, with Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, telling us how policy was "hijacked" by the Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal," it's hard to get leading figures to admit that they were misled into supporting the Iraq war. Kudos to John Kerry for finally saying just that last week.
And as for the media: these days, there is much harsh, justified criticism of the failure of major news organizations, this one included, to exert due diligence on rationales for the war. But the failures that made the long nightmare possible began much earlier, during the weeks after 9/11, when the media eagerly helped our political leaders build up a completely false picture of who they were.
So the long nightmare won't really be over until journalists ask themselves: what did we know, when did we know it, and why didn't we tell the public?