In the 2000 election, the voters of this country
could have been forgiven
for sizing up George W. Bush as a cross between a moderate Republican and DLC
Democrat. Here are some of the things he said while campaigning:
In a stirring passage in his convention speech, Bush invoked
single moms struggling to feed their kids and pay the rent.
Immigrants starting a hard life in a new world. Children without fathers in
neighborhoods where gangs seem like friendship. ... We are their country, too.
... When these problems aren't confronted, it builds a wall within our nation. On
one side are wealth and technology, education and ambition. On the other side of
the wall are poverty and prison, addiction and despair. And, my fellow Americans,
we must tear down that wall.
One could imagine Bobby Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson -- or even Al Gore on a
good day -- uttering just those words.
"To seniors in this country," Bush earnestly declared, "you earned your
benefits, you made your plans, and President George W. Bush will keep the promise
of Social Security -- no changes, no reductions, no way."
"Medicare," he added, "does more than meet the needs of our elderly; it
reflects the values of our society. We will set it on firm financial ground, and
make prescription drugs available and affordable for every senior who needs
In the third presidential debate, Bush told Gore, "You know I support a
national patients' bill of rights, Mr. Vice President. And I want all people
covered." He called for grants to the states "so that seniors -- poor seniors --
don't have to choose between food and medicine."
He pledged to change the tone in Washington, to govern as a bipartisan the way
he had done as governor of Texas. "I know it's going to require a different kind
of leader to go to Washington and say to both Republicans and Democrats, 'Let's
come together,'" he said.
Bush repeatedly promised to balance the budget and insisted that the nation
could afford a tax cut without slipping into deficit. He even criticized a House
Republican plan to achieve budget savings by cutting the Earned Income Tax
Credit: "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the
poor," he said.
Turning to the environment, Bush regularly suggested that he would be
unusually green for a Republican. "To enhance America's long-term energy
security," he said, "we must continue developing renewable energy."
On education, he famously promised to "leave no child behind," borrowing not
only liberal ideas about universal inclusion but literally plagiarizing the
three-decades-old slogan of the Children's Defense Fund (the fund now prints its
slogan with a trademark sign).
All of these declarations were, of course, lies. While all recent presidents
have periodically gone back on promises and some have told explicit untruths,
what's interesting about this president is that his multiple lies are something
very rare in politics: They are ideological lies. Worse still, according
The Washington Post's David Broder, Bush seems determined to make
compassionate conservatism the centerpiece of the 2002 campaign -- the actual
substance of his presidency notwithstanding.
Hypocrisy, as La Rochefoucauld observed, is the homage that vice pays to
virtue. In the case of Bush, campaign lies are the homage that Republican
sloganeering paid to the popularity of Democratic ideology.
Imagine instead that Bush had hit the campaign trail
Social Security shift that increased the system's deficits, requiring cuts in
benefits and an increase in the retirement age; that he'd promised a tax cut that
cost more than twice Social Security's long-term shortfall. Imagine that his
patients' rights bill was advertised as authored by the HMO industry -- and as
prohibiting patients denied care from suing their insurer; that he'd touted a
Medicare plan that would keep ratcheting down payments to hospitals and doctors;
that his environmental policy would scrap one protection after another and let
industry rewrite the rules; that he'd pledged to demonize Democrats who resisted
his policies; that his No Child Left Behind program pledged to freeze funding for
Head Start and money for child care -- and to go back on a bipartisan deal to
increase federal funds for poor public schools in exchange for high-stakes
Campaigning on that set of views, Bush would have been the minority
candidate of a minority party. There would have been no cliffhanger in Florida
and no narrow Supreme Court resolution of Bush v. Gore. Yet that set of
views has been his actual program.
More interesting still, Bush has mostly gotten away with it. While a careful
reader of the quality press might connect the dots and conclude that Bush's
presidency is a double fraud -- not only wasn't he really elected, he isn't
remotely governing on the program he offered voters -- there's been no widespread
One simply cannot conjure up a systematic presidential deception of
comparable cynicism and scale. Bill Clinton, to be sure, lied about his sexual
escapades. He often enraged allies both left and center: The DLC and the labor
movement agree on just about nothing but they share Monica Lewinsky's assessment
that Clinton is a faithless lover. Clinton tacked right on values issues in the
1992 campaign only to embrace gay rights. He assiduously courted the gay
community only to back a lame halfway policy of "don't ask, don't tell."
Conversely, he initially postured liberal on economic issues only to abandon both
universal health insurance and economic stimulus by public investment. Many
blacks were so comfortable with Clinton that they considered him the first
African-American president. But for all his marquee appointments of black
officials, Clinton could embrace a cruel version of welfare reform and abandon
old friends such as Lani Guinier.
Yet there was about Clinton a broad ideological consistency. Though he could
infuriate his friends on the particulars, these were tactical reversals within a
relatively narrow, consistent ideological whole. Clinton was at heart a centrist
-- a moderate with some liberal leanings who governed as a wily pragmatist and
who often fought his conservative adversaries to a draw or better. Jimmy Carter
was similar. Bush Senior was essentially a moderate Republican who tried to court
his party's right wing, but his heart wasn't really in it. Ronald Reagan was a
genuine conservative who never pretended to be anything but. To find a deception
of comparable scale to Bush's, you have to go all the way back to Lyndon Johnson,
who ran in 1964 as the candidate who would keep us from a wider war in Vietnam
and then escalated the conflict. On domestic policy, Johnson gave the country the
progressive program he promised and more. Indeed, as Robert Caro's latest
installment makes clear [Robert Mann, " HREF="/print/V13/9/mann-r.html">Masterful," TAP, May 20, 2002], if
anyone should feel betrayed by LBJ, it was the Senate's southern bourbons with
whom he'd allied himself to become majority leader in the 1950s.
As ideological fraud, then, George W. Bush remains
in a class by
himself. It's understandable why he does it: Democrats' domestic positions are
basically popular. But why does he get away with it? He pulls it off, I think,
for several reasons (of which September 11 is fairly far down the list).
First, in his own goofy way he's a political natural, a nice guy. His
political style has a chumminess and warm physicality that's disarming. It's easy
to detest his policies but not so easy to hate the man. The first time I watched
him at close range, he was working a room of Democratic senators (he'd boldly
solicited an invitation to a Democratic Caucus retreat and I was an invited
speaker). That's when I realized how much his critics had underestimated the man
as a politician. Bush was off script and off the record, and he did just fine at
the banter. The wisecracks were spontaneous and smart. Indeed, if Clinton
alienated because he was too clever by half, Bush endears when it turns out he's
not as dumb as you thought. You're waiting for him to stumble and you're charmed
when he doesn't.
Second, Bush has absolutely superb handlers and tacticians. His speechwriter,
Michael Gerson, is so gifted that he could make a trained monkey sound like
Jefferson. Karl Rove, his political grand strategist, has perfected a game of
leaving the Democrats with no popular issues on the table. If Democrats are for
Social Security, so is Bush. If they back patients' rights and prescription
drugs, so does he. If they embrace kids, he does them one better. Bush then takes
away in the fine print everything that he offers in the headlines. Politically,
alas, this is mere detail -- so much policy wonkery. The betrayal enrages experts
and advocates but can be dealt with by creative obfuscation when it comes to the
voters. But what does that say about the voters?
Here we have the third and most alarming factor. This is an era in which
voters are unusually quiescent. For two decades, expectations about what
government can do have been so lowered -- and here many Democrats are just as
culpable as Republicans -- that the broad public doesn't get terribly indignant
about betrayals, much less of the ideological kind. The public has come to expect
government to jerk people around. When Bush breaches a promise, it only confirms
the general suspicion that government can't be trusted anyway. And the fact that
the Democratic Party doesn't have a clear opposition ideology makes Bush's task
that much easier.
September 11 certainly allowed Bush to change the subject. At the same time,
however, voters remain closer to core Democratic views on a broad range of
domestic issues. Polls consistently show that voters don't translate Bush's
popularity on national-security issues into support for Republican positions on
patients' rights, Social Security, and the rest [Ruy Teixeira, " HREF="/print/V13/7/teixeira-r.html">Politics for
Democrats," TAP, April 8, 2002]. But politics itself is so debased and
devalued that all Bush need do is genuflect to those broad Democratic themes.
After all, the guy really does seem to care about poor people, seniors, and kids.
In fairness, voters were well aware that Bush was no liberal -- on some
issues, at least. He straightforwardly called for a tax cut, and for vouchers as
a remedy to "failing schools." He said he wanted to reduce the incidence of
abortion, though he was careful not to support overturning Roe v. Wade. He
embraced private retirement accounts as a complement to Social Security for
younger workers, but not at the cost of weakening Social Security itself. And he
advocated greater use of religious institutions to carry out social services. But
he carefully balanced these views with a sweeping embrace of liberal rhetoric and
programs on a host of other issues.
Moreover, a lot of Bush's hard-right program has flown beneath the radar. On
the issue of reproductive rights, for example, where Bush has always stopped just
short of calling for an end to a woman's right to terminate an unwanted
pregnancy, he's done just about everything else to hobble abortion, family
planning, and even the therapeutic use of discarded fertilized embryos. An
administration plan to eliminate contraception coverage from federal employees'
insurance plans was reversed by Congress.
Or consider No Child Left Behind. Bush's grand scheme for children in
low-performing schools had three elements: relentlessly test kids, let some
parents opt out of such schools with vouchers, and increase public-school
funding. But Bush has repeatedly welshed on the funding. [See Noy Thrupkaew, "A
Dollar Short"] Under the newly
enacted education law, children as young
as eight will be subjected to standardized testing. In inner-city schools, as
many as half will fail. These kids will be "left back" as they used to say, but
without adequate resources for good remedial education. What then? Will they just
keep repeating fourth grade?
Schools carry the burden of society's other deficits. If Bush were serious
about leaving no child behind, he would not just throw tests at kids and vouchers
at their parents. He would offer kids decent day care while their mothers worked,
fully fund Head Start, and get children of low-income families prepared for
school with high-quality pre-kindergarten. Decent wages wouldn't hurt, either.
He's of course done none of this, and millions of children will be left behind.
But with a few eloquent Gerson speeches informed by careful focus groups and
some nice photos of himself with poor kids, Bush has seized the rhetorical high
Holding bush accountable for these deceptions will
than partisan or journalistic truth squads. The detail is hidden in plain view,
courtesy of the Web (for one-stop shopping, try our own HREF="http://www.movingideas.org" TARGET="outlink">www.movingideas.org).
However, information without political narrative might as well not exist. So the
larger challenge is to re-energize not just liberal politics, but politics as
such. Today's characteristic politics lends itself perfectly to slogan, symbol,
deception, even systematic prevarication.
As political scientists since Maurice Duverger have pointed out, a
disengaged politics is necessarily a conservative politics. Without the
counterweight of a mobilized citizenry that has the motivation to pay attention
and the institutions that can aggregate and express its concerns, the system
defaults to its other source of residual power: concentrated wealth. Institutions
like the labor movement, which give ordinary people the mechanisms to effect
political change and the motivation to take politics seriously, are diminished.
It's no accident that labor did so much of the heavy lifting for Gore -- and that
it wasn't quite enough. As another political scientist, Kay Lehman Schlozman, has
observed, most people of modest means no longer participate vigorously in
politics -- not only because they don't believe politics make a difference, but
also because the institutions that invite their participation are dwindling.
Media are also culpable: Short-attention-span TV and Internet gossip sites
function as though politics were not about how a great democracy makes weighty
choices; it's just another form of commerce or entertainment. The media loves the
gotcha game, but whopping discrepancies in the Medicare budget or global-warming
policy are not good gotcha.
These trends, all of which debase politics, have been building for a long
time; their full fruit is George W. Bush. Now the Bush charade is due for a
revival in this year's campaign. As long as the citizenry is anesthetized,
however, even systematic presidential lying is of little consequence. And a
polity in which leaders lie and the public shrugs falls short of a democracy.
That's the hard truth.