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COLUMN

What Happened To George W. Bush?

Ken Nesmith

I recall watching President Bush’s speech at the Republican National Convention and thinking that if nothing else, he was energetic. He had a youthful passion and energy that fit his image as a new, less tainted force in the political world. He was a political outsider, a regular guy from the ranch, granted a special place in politics by, shall we say, “nominal” qualifications. Watching his most recent State of the Union address, most agreed that he’s visibly aged during his tenure. A bit of his down to earth, regular-guy spirit seems to have fallen by the wayside as well.

Bush seemed tired, his words delivered with exhaustion. His brown eyes twinkled from a less animated face as he offered his well-crafted lines with what seemed to be more effort than usual. Bush’s speech directly addressed criticisms levied against his work as president. He promised billions to fight AIDS in Africa, he stepped up the war on bioterror at home, he declared a bit of success in the fight against al-Qaida. His message, however, especially as it related to domestic affairs, seemed tired and strained by beltway fatigue; his commitment to a world of self-sufficiency, good and evil, and free Americans seemed weathered by gradually more prevalent compromises and sacrifices of principle.

The first half of Bush’s speech appeared designed to address predictions that he, like his father, would face political death by devoting attention to foreign questions (in this case, almost the same single foreign question) at the cost of maintaining domestic and economic affairs. He certainly did address domestic affairs, but he did so in a way that I doubt he would have three years ago. In this speech, Bush made a laundry list of new government initiatives, expenditures, and programs, each with high prices, and each with noble goals. The problems he sought to address are certainly genuine problems: addiction, education, energy needs, health care needs, and so forth. Never before, though, has Bush thought it right or appropriate to turn to the government to spend federal money to solve the problems of the individual, especially in matters that are little more than a question of individual choice. Yet we heard Bush call for massive expansion of medicare; $400 billion over ten years. We heard him call for federal funding to help fight drug addiction, and for a hydrogen car project strikingly similar to the one Clinton started that Bush canceled. We heard a call to create a new nationwide federal mentoring program for children. Again and again, for half an hour, we heard about something Bush considers to be a problem, and we heard of his new federal program and corresponding federal expenditure designed to address it. What happened to George W. the rancher, the young Republican from Texas, who shivered at the thought of big government?

But this wasn’t the end of the surprises. While massively raising spending, Bush would like to -- guess what? -- cut taxes, harder and faster. Yet he discussed the cuts with less certainty and conviction than he perhaps once did, working to defend their legitimacy during a down economy. He spoke simply: in hard times, the last thing the government needs to do is take more of your money, he told us. Economic strength, he continued, will come when individuals can work, produce, and consume, with as little interference as possible. (He also made the useless statement that he’d like every man and woman in America who wants a job to have one, an obvious impossibility.)

There we have it; two approaches to government. The latter is Bush’s traditional conservative approach: leave citizens free to solve their own problems, free to make their own choices, and free to keep the fruit of their labor. The former is straight out of left field. Since when does Bush believe in making Washington solve everyone’s problems? Did we not hear him rail against this precise approach to government in the years leading up to his election? Have we not heard every last Republican railing against Clinton for eight consecutive years for precisely this crime, abandoning individual responsibility? They now shoulder the federal government with that same burden.

Want to be a neoconservative, free-market proponent, blamer of the poor, believer in the individual American citizen, hater of big government? Fine, do it. Want to be a leftist redistributer of wealth, building new government programs as fast as you can think of them, spending taxes as fast as you can take them? Fine, do it. But don’t be both. They are mutually incompatible positions. Living a contradiction isn’t good form.

Bush seems to have moved quickly from insightfully recognizing problems Americans face today to believing that he can solve them with the help of the federal government; or perhaps his advisers simply told him to say all this. He did seem much more comfortable with his discussions of foreign policy, and especially his discussion of Iraq, although details on plans for North Korea were tragically lacking. Bush addressed the Middle East well. He attacked Iran’s government while pledging support for the students protesting for democracy in that country. He discussed Iraq’s failure to do anything right during the last decade of disarmament, again identifying the government as the problem and the people of Iraq as part of the solution. He catalogued the weapons they have, the weapons they’re pursuing, and their failure to cooperate with the inspections process. Conservatives remain loathe to acknowledge our role in giving Saddam weapons of mass destruction and overseeing their use in the eighties, greenlighting his invasion of Kuwait, and proudly flaunting international law while damning him for the same. Still, a new Iraq successfully built on freedom and democracy may very well be best for both Iraqis and the rest of the world.

We saw a different George W. at this State of the Union address. I don’t know what happened to the old one. Sure, he still flubbed some lines, and had a nice cowboyish reference to killing people by saying they’re “no longer a problem,” but it’s just not the same. What happened to his energy? And where did all those government programs come from? The closest he could come to talk of restraining spending was a promise to not grow discretionary spending more than 4 percent; not exactly a huge money-saving move. Bush’s popularity has been falling in the past few months. North Korea is going to be a hell of a problem for him, not to mention the world. The economy is slipping again in a double-dip recession. Suddenly, nothing seems certain -- certainly not Bush’s political philosophy, nor his once assured re-election.