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The Pretender

“Let the word go forth from this time and place that the torch has been passed to an old generation -- my Old Man‘s handlers, tested in the Cold War, tempered in the board rooms, schooled in the oil bidness, steeled on the links and on the yachts . . .”

The Restoration is upon us. The dynasty’s dullard son now rules, to a general, still largely unspoken sense of incredulity. The thought that will not go away, even among Republicans for whom W.‘s legitimacy is not at issue, is: What is he doing there? This is not a feeling that Reagan, for all his intellectual incuriousness, evoked; nor Ford, despite his abrupt emergence; nor Nixon, despite the mistrust he inspired; nor Truman, despite having to succeed the most beloved and seemingly permanent of presidents. You have to go back to Coolidge to find a president with a resume so short, a presence so uninspiring, an intelligence so difficult to locate.

And you have to go back to Ulysses Grant to find another chief executive who, up until a dozen or so years before becoming president, was a substance abuser who’d failed in one business venture after another. Both Grant and Bush went on the wagon, but there the similarities end. In order to become president, Grant turned himself into the military genius who saved the Union. W., on the other hand, had some friends of his pop buy him a baseball team, where he served as amiable front man. In the nationwide Republican landslide of 1994, he was elected governor of Texas, where he served as amiable front man. In the election of 2000, he lost to a stiff by 500,000 votes, but some friends of his pop managed to wangle him just enough electoral votes by getting the count stopped before he could fall behind there, too.

Since that December evening when the Supreme Court made him the president, a number of Bush‘s efforts to reassure a nervous nation have had, perversely, the opposite effect. He’s exhibited a humility at being president that I can only presume is calculated to contrast with what Republicans see as Bill Clinton‘s arrogance. He was, he said, “honored” when foreign heads of state phoned him after his election; “honored” when French President Jacques Chirac personally called on him; “honored,” his first night as president, to have slept in the White House. Bush calls to mind Churchill’s line, when told that a certain person he didn‘t like was nonetheless a modest man, that “he has much to be modest about.” “Honored,” in this context, seems increasingly a synonym for surprised, amazed, overwhelmed -- and unworthy. It’s not an honor for an American president in the year 2001 to be sought out by the heads of other nations; it‘s simply part of the job. If the nation is wondering, What is he doing there?, Bush himself seems to be wondering, What am I doing here? For Clinton, the presidency was the supreme object of his desire; for Bush, it seems more like a chore he’s been unable to duck. Thirty years after he got out of going to Vietnam, the draft has finally caught up with him.

Bush‘s appointments have only intensified the impression of unreadiness, since he’s disproportionately hired his father‘s retainers, veterans of the old Republican wars. His is a stunningly backward-looking cabinet. His national security team tends to see the planet chiefly through a military rather than economic lens. His secretary of state, Colin Powell, invokes Vietnam as a reason to oppose all intervention, though he favors boosting military spending. His defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, seeks to build a Cold War--style missile defense system, though we have no Cold War--style adversary. His most controversial nominees -- Attorney General--designate John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary--designate Gale Norton -- have gone out of their way to identify themselves with the cause of the Confederacy.

The Bush Cabinet is drawn as well from the old economy -- chiefly, the military-industrial complex, the defence bureaucracy and the oil industry, the steel and shmutz sectors. It’s not just that Dick Cheney is from Halliburton and Don Evans is an old Midland driller. Even national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was a corporate director of Chevron. Chief of Staff Andy Card was the leading lobbyist for the auto industry. Treasury Secretary Paul O‘Neill, by all reports a highly capable centrist, headed Alcoa and the board of RAND. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld also chaired the RAND board at one time, and was a drug-company CEO. And three Bush Cabinet picks have befriended the tobacco industry at crucial intervals: Health and Human Services Secretary--designate Tommy Thompson took more than $70,000 from Philip Morris and opposed smoking restrictions as governor of Wisconsin; Ashcroft was the only member of the Senate Commerce Committee to oppose a bill curtailing tobacco marketing; and Norton, while Colorado Attorney General, refused until quite late to enter the omnibus suit that states brought against the industry.

 

It’s a hardware cabinet in a software world. For better and worse, the worlds of finance and culture -- the two sectors of the American economy that have come to dominate the planet over the past decade -- are all but unrepresented in the new administration. In this sense, there‘s a Rip Van Winkle aspect to the Bush people: This is the kind of cabinet you’d pick if you‘d just awakened from a nap that began around 1990. And a napping, we know, is one of the few skills at which our new president excels.

Young W. rolled two speeches into one for his inaugural address. The atmospherics, the metaphors, the rhetoric, were all compassion and conciliation. “Everyone belongs,” the new president said. “Every immigrant, by embracing these [our national] ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.” It was eloquent, it was inclusive, it was -- well, vague.

Only one paragraph was programmatic -- listing five programs, four of which appeal chiefly if not only to his conservative base. W. called for improving schools, for reforming (i.e., privatizing) Social Security and Medicare, cutting taxes, rebuilding the military, and establishing a missile defense system.

It was this paragraph that drew the cheers from the Republican crowd -- chiefly, the line about tax cuts. Indeed, the two loudest cheers of the day, other than those when Bush first appeared and then took the oath, were in response to the tax-cut line -- and the introduction of Chief Justice Rehnquist.

So much for the compassionate atmospherics. The Republican base wants red meat. Some of his core program -- privatizing Social Security, which portends for the brokerage industry a fotune beyond dreams of avarice -- isn’t all that likely to be enacted. On this issue, the Senate Democrats can probably sustain a filibuster, and they‘ll have some good arguments while they chatter on: For one, the notion that all stock investments are bound to appreciate has lost its credibility. If Americans’ nest eggs had gone into the market this year, they would not, on average, have made any money. Those unfortunate enough to have bet on the NASDAQ would have been shlepped to the cleaners.

Garden-variety arms spending will likely be increased, so long as the surplus is there for the picking. W‘s missile defense program, however, will be a tougher sell. The fact that every test of the system has failed should deter at least some senators. The fact that a rogue nation is more likely to sneak a bomb here in a suitcase rather than launch it on a missile whose point of origin is immediately detectable should deter some more. The fact that building a missile defense will likely spur counter-measures from Russia and China, and that the very idea strikes our every ally as both nonsensical and dangerous, may just deter a few more.

But is missile defense that much crazier than a major increase in general defense spending? Both are premised on heightening our ability to defeat an adversary in conventional or nuclear warfare -- this in a world where we have no remotely plausible adversaries in a military conflict. What plunges this policy into the realm of the absurd, however, is the Bush administration’s fundamental foreign policy. Throughout his campaign, W. criticized Bill Clinton for intervening in places -- Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti -- which may have pricked our national conscience, but did not threaten our national interest. His new secretary of state, General Powell, essentially blocked Clinton from intervening in Bosnia; the U.S. did nothing to stop the bloodshed until Powell stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, at which point our use of air power put an end to the carnage. If Bush, Powell, Condi Rice et al. are to be taken seriously, it‘s hard to envision just what kind of situations would merit our intervention, short of a threat to oil reserves. But the Bush position is to increase arms spending by $45 billion -- and that’s not counting the blank check for missile defense -- to back up a policy that all but precludes our interventions in the kind of conflicts that characterize the post--Cold War world. This is a foreign and military policy worthy of Lewis Carroll.

That leaves tax cuts, which are best understood as Republican identity politics. Of all the old Republican battle cries, only tax cuts remain. The GOP‘s call for heightened defense spending has been rendered silly by the disappearance of the communist bloc. The war on welfare was co-opted by Clinton. The attack on the Democrats as soft on crime was blunted into nonexistence by Clinton, too; indeed, the Democrats have become the party of more cops and the Republicans have become the party that defends the rights of everyone, including criminals, to carry guns. The GOP’s war on the deficit can no longer be waged; and it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are warring on the debt. The Republican war on immigrants is over; there are too many immigrants now on the voting rolls. The GOP war on abortion has alienated millions of voters who might otherwise vote Republican. Not all of this transformation was Bill Clinton‘s doing, but all in all, he left the Republicans with precious few issues of their own.

 

Indeed, for the past two years, the GOP’s defining issue has been Clinton himself. With the race card and the commie card and the fiscal-responsibility card all no longer playable, there remained the cultural civil war, the battle for traditional morality, all of which was encapsulated in the war against Slick Willie. Now, however, Clinton is gone, too -- with the threat of any prosecution lifted. The Republicans will miss him more than they know. Clinton-hatred defined the party over the past two years; it was their North Star.

So George W. Bush comes to power at the head of a party whose sole defining issue is tax cuts. Initially, W. proposed his tax cut as a political tactic only: He was convinced that Steve Forbes would attack him to great effect in New Hampshire unless he embraced Forbes‘ tax-cut mania. This proved miserable prophecy: Not even “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire Republicans were interested in cutting taxes in the current economy; on primary day, they ignored Forbes, clobbered Bush, and voted for John McCain, who’d made a point of opposing Bush‘s proposal.

Throughout the general election, Al Gore attacked Bush’s tax plan as a giveaway to the rich, which it is: Fully 43 percent of the $1.3 trillion in cuts would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Voters told pollsters that they agreed with Gore; they preferred the money go to debt reduction, the not-very-progressive alternative Gore was proposing. In the past two months, however, W. has shifted the rationale for cutting taxes. Now, we are told, it‘s a Keynesian tool to stimulate a slowing economy; and besides, the surplus projections are growing so large that W.’s dollar figures seem only modestly preposterous.

As an economic stimulus, though, W.‘s tax cut would be a gargantuan dud. Eliminating the estate tax as he proposes would simply transfer more stock from the rich and the dead to their offspring. (It would also eliminate the single greatest spur to charitable giving in the U.S. -- so much for fostering compassion in the private sector.) Phasing in rate cuts to the rich over the next decade, as W. also proposes, would hardly put more money in circulation, either. Over the past eight years, Bill Clinton left the business of heating and cooling the economy to Alan Greenspan; economic stimulation became the exclusive province of the Fed. But with the threat of a downturn, W.’s supply-side case for tax cuts is now augmented by the old Keynesian case. (Actually, a real Keynesian would support government spending; tax cuts are the right-wing appropriation of Keynesianism.) As such, support for some level of cuts is beginning to be heard among some of the more conservative Capitol Hill Democrats. (Georgia Senator Zell Miller has agreed to co-author the bill.) One can only hope that the Hill‘s Democratic leaders -- Senator Tom Daschle and Representative Dick Gephardt -- will offer a cut of their own that scales back W.’s mammoth giveaway, and redirects it to Americans of modest incomes (who would spend it instantly, which would be a stimulus). That would not only be smarter economics, it would be much smarter politics.a

It‘s hard to believe Bush would fall into the trap of defending tax cuts for families making $500,000 a year while the Democrats are pushing cuts for families at the $50,000 level. On the other hand, this is why Republicans are born -- to reward the rich and remove all impediments to same. Anyone who thinks W. will shy at cutting taxes because it’s politically dicey hasn‘t been following his comments on the energy crisis here in California.

They make for some amazing reading. In the days immediately preceding his inauguration, Bush told several interviewers that he didn’t want to place a federal cap on energy prices. He went further than that on CNN, saying, “If there‘s any environmental regulations that’s preventing California from having a 100-percent max output at their plants -- as I understand there may be -- then we need to relax those regulations.” In other words, Californians care too much about cleaning up their air, so it‘s their own damned fault if the lights are flickering.

 

Clearly, Bush has begun his campaign to lose California by 25 points in 2004. Support for maintaining clean-air standards, even during the current crisis, is widespread in California, among Republicans no less than Democrats. Support for federal price controls, meanwhile, is growing even among the most conservative California Republicans: in recent days, such Tom DeLay acolytes as Congressmen Randy “Duke” Cunningham and George Radanovich have called for controls.

Bush runs the risk of looking absolutely terrible in this, his first crisis. The complaint that clear-air regs (which are set by the federal government, not the state) are keeping the plants from working at max output has been lodged specifically by Enron, the Houston-based oil and gas conglomerate that wants to squeeze more profit from its California plant. Over the years, Enron has also been W.’s single largest contributor, with the other companies that are now charging California taxpayers outrageous rates on the spot market not far behind. By opposing price controls, Bush is directly enriching the very companies that have most enriched him. He reinforces the popular (and accurate) view that his administration is at bottom the oil industry vested with state power.

Actually, he reinforces an ideal type: To Democrats, the Republicans are a bunch of Texans who pollute the earth, air and water. Correspondingly, to Republicans, the Democrats are a bunch of Californians who pollute the culture.

But W. himself isn‘t likely to be much of a culture warrior. With Clinton gone, the Republicans will have to turn back to the culture itself to decry our moral decay. William Bennett and Lynne Cheney will condemn Hollywood. (They will likely continue to give GOP mega-donor and right-wing ideologue Rupert Murdoch a free pass, however, though it’s his Fox network that produces, in shows like Temptation Island, much of the trashiest programming around.) Bush cannot credibly enter into this particular Republican blood sport, however, since by his own admission he doesn‘t see much TV or many movies.

Indeed, the most basic Bush mystery is how he spends his time. We know he doesn’t follow culture, except sports. He doesn‘t bone up on public policy. He’s never really traveled (he‘s been to Scotland once, for a wedding). He’s narrowly read. His ranch house doesn‘t have cable; he doesn’t avidly follow the news. Information -- including news of Dick Cheney‘s heart attack -- seems to reach him slowly, sporadically. He seems insulated, as a matter both of process and inclination. There’s no question that he delegates: James Baker ran Florida; Dick Cheney ran the transition. The unanswered question is, What doesn‘t he delegate? What does Bush himself decide? Who does the job of the president? Is there anybody there?

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