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COLUMN

Contradiction and Idiocy

Ken Nesmith

I have very mixed feelings about President Bush. He does appear to have an honest commitment to respectable values and ideals, and seems less conniving and calculating than the usual politician, even if it may be for lack of ability. It’s hard, though, to afford him too much admiration and respect.

A recent interview of his, with a BBC reporter just before he visited London last year, made one of his weaknesses particularly visible. As he worked to do the traditional interviewee’s job of finding a way to reshape the questions such that he could use his prewritten answers, one could almost hear his advisers coaching him hours earlier, reminding him to stay “on message” and deliver the right catch phrases. He would interrupt himself midway through responses to insert sound-bite-able lines, as if clumsily remembering the appropriate item to deliver on a particular topic. Spinning through a question about progress in Iraq, he stopped himself mid-sentence to plug one of his favorite lines: “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it’s the Almighty’s gift to mankind.” Certainly, it’s a nice line, suggesting inalienable, individual human rights. Plenty of other less dramatic ones popped up alongside it, about “revisionist history” in Iraq and so forth.

Bush is often compared to Ronald Reagan both in terms of style and policies; here, I was reminded of Reagan’s tactic of doing focus-group testing on certain lines for his speeches, and coming away from those tests with gems about our nation’s undying love of freedom, the communist evil empire, and so forth. Bush’s lines appeared crafted with similar planning, and his discernible awkwardness in forcing them into his responses was grating.

But then, Bush has never been renowned for his oratorical mastery. His prewritten speeches go well enough, but his penchant for mangling even simple sentences has spawned a small industry of Bushism novelty books and desk calendars. The contention of his strongest supporters has always been that he’s much sharper than he appears, and that he has a driving curiosity with which he grills advisers on each policy issue. I was always sort of skeptical about that, after watching him speak a few times. Such a wide disconnect between public and private ability and behavior didn’t seem likely. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill recently released a book detailing his time in the Bush White House, and he gives a damning portrayal of Bush as an intellectually lazy, incurious oaf, if a friendly one -- more or less exactly what you’d expect from watching him speak. (O’Neill also claims that Bush is led by advisers more sensitive to polling than any he’s ever seen, a well-supported assertion which makes the complaints of Clinton’s detractors, that Clinton’s was a milquetoasty poll-driven administration, laughable.)

The administration’s internal mechanics aside, I’m ambivalent about the policies that have emerged from it. Bush has done a nice job of letting people keep more of what they own. Reducing taxes on income and capital gains has allowed the economy to function more freely, letting people do the work they like and trade as they see fit without making as large an involuntary contribution to the government. Although far too great a part of the economy’s fluctuations are attributed to the leaders who sit in office while boom or bust happens around them (witness those who give Clinton undeserved credit for the 90s boom), the last few quarters of extraordinary economic growth have been encouraging. Forecasts predict continued growth, soon to be joined by attendant job growth; this resurgence contributes nicely to what many say is a worldwide economic recovery. His program to allow immigrants to work should be welcome to all.

I likewise have few serious problems with Bush’s foreign policy. The war in Iraq has drastically improved the long-term outlook for the Middle East. The construction of a thriving, functional Iraq is underway at a remarkable pace, and will accelerate as quickly as suicidal rebels with no apparent goal but destruction and death allow it to. There are encouraging signs of foment in Iran, dictators are volunteering to abandon WMD programs, and Bush has dealt with North Korea as well as can be done. Only time will tell if any good can emerge from that hellish scenario; an end to accommodation of an unthinkably terrible regime was a necessary precursor to serious confrontation and resolution of that problem.

But if we continue this short and incomplete survey of the administration’s policies, we run into an interesting mess that deserves attention. Bush has done a fine job cutting taxes. That’s step 1 in reducing the intrusive, parasitic role of government. Step 2 is actually reducing that role -- if not by shrugging off inappropriate social responsibilities such as taxpayer-sponsored venture capitalism or marriage counseling, then by at least limiting their growth to a rate less than that of national economic growth, so that government becomes a proportionally smaller drag on the nation’s economy. What have Bush and this Republican Congress done? Expanded government wherever possible. Federal spending has skyrocketed, even leaving aside extra spending for Iraq, Afghanistan, and homeland security. Without even accounting for defense and entitlement spending, Bush has raised federal outlays 21 percent in three years (versus a .7 percent decrease in Clinton’s first three years). Education spending has risen 60 percent since 2000; transportation spending has risen by half. Labor department spending is up 61 percent, health and human services, 20 percent. (These numbers are from Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic.)

There we have it, contradiction and idiocy in practice. Although it’s discouraging, we can at least take a small chuckle away from the whole scenario. Look again at those increases: Bush is dumping money into education, transportation, the labor department, and now, health care, via an unthinkably expensive prescription drug program, designed to buy cutting edge drugs for whoever needs them. Should he not be the best friend of every liberal in America? Every time a Bush opponent laments that he’s helped the military and the wealthy at the expense of the homeless, schoolchildren, old people, the middle class, the lower class, the environment, the sick, minorities and other people and things in the country, you have to wonder if they noticed that he’s spending more on liberal causes than anyone, ever. Anyone who increases government spending this much should be every liberal’s best friend.

But that’s only a small side note to an unfortunate situation. We college kids will be paying off this spending throughout our lifetimes. Democrats are hopelessly fiscally irresponsible -- all candidates want to further expand spending and raise taxes; Bush, unless he suddenly remembers all of those things he used to say about smaller government, appears to be hopeless. I suppose it’s a silly question, but where are the honest, responsible politicians? That’s not a joke; I’d like to think there’s some answer to that question other than cynical sarcasm.