For what has been called “the most consequential election in decades,” we have asked some of our contributors for their views.—The Editors
K. ANTHONY APPIAH
Princeton, New Jersey
If there’s one thing that supporters of the current administration insist upon, it’s that George W. Bush “is a man of his word.” After the casuistries of his predecessor—”it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” and all that—Americans were promised a man who, at the very least, would mean what he said and would say what he meant. Some of Bush’s defenders have returned to his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention and point to the specific promises he has kept. And to revisit the candidate’s speech, four years later, is indeed an illuminating exercise.
Congress sent him a “partial-birth abortion” ban and, as he promised, he signed it (though, as he must have expected, one of those “unelected judges” found the ban unconstitutional). He has, as he pledged, increased the funds available to pay for prescriptions for some retired people under Medicare (though to get the bill passed he had to conceal how much it would cost). He has proposed in each of his budgets,as he said he would, that younger workers should be allowed to invest part of their Social Security tax for themselves (though without making provisions for the huge shortfall in near-term Social Security funding—estimated at a trillion dollars—that would result).
Most of his promises on education, if we interpret them charitably, were carried out by the “No Child Left Behind” Act (though his commitment to “make Head Start an early learning program to teach all our children to read” did not, as it turns out, mean that he would give the program any more money). He kept his substantial commitment to lower all tax rates and create a new 10 percent bracket; and he has, indeed, tried to abolish the federal inheritance tax and double the child tax credit (though he didn’t acknowledge to the public that trillions of dollars in projected deficits were the predictable consequence of his tax policy).
What’s striking, however, is that when you turn to the largest, grandest promises that the candidate made, the line between words and deeds yawns into a crevasse. Here is what Governor Bush said:
We will strengthen Social Security and Medicare for the greatest generation and for generations to come.
I work with Republicans and Democrats to get things done.
When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming.
We’re learning to protect the natural world around us. We will continue this progress, and we will not turn back.
When I act, you will know my reasons. And when I speak, you will know my heart.
President George W. Bush has betrayed every one of these grand promises—often as a result of the promises he did keep. The mammoth deficits he has run up have further imperiled programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Washington has become an increasingly partisan place these last four years. The administration’s goal in Iraq was—and is—extremely obscure and victory correspondingly elusive, while the human costs to both Americans and Iraqis have been appalling. This White House has, moreover, the worst record on the environment of any since the rise of the environmental movement. And much of what the President has said to us on topics ranging from Iraq’s alleged weapons and connections with al- Qaeda to affirmative action and gay rights has involved speaking insistently out of both sides of his mouth.
Four years have rolled around, and we now have a new acceptance speech to consider. At the 2004 Republican National Convention George W. Bush proclaimed: “Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.” Do we? This acceptance speech contains far fewer specific statements about domestic policy than the first one did. Topics broached in his 2000 address where he has been obviously in default—such as his pledge to work to “reduce nuclear weapons and nuclear tensions,” or his expressed concern for the environment—receive no mention at all. Unblushingly, a president who appointed John Ashcroft to the office of attorney general and believes that American courts cannot be trusted to try the country’s alleged enemies avows that he “believes in the transformational power of liberty.”
It’s telling, though, how often, when discussing key elements of his domestic policy, a president who confessed (with mock humility) that he sometimes came across as “a little too blunt” resorted to code words. He vowed to “change outdated labor laws to offer comp-time and flex-time”—code, which his corporate supporters will easily decipher, for weakening the Fair Labor Standards Act, and its provisions for overtime pay. On tax policy, he spoke of reform and simplification—words understood, by well-to-do Republican constituents, as code for bringing the country closer to a flat tax. And his centerpiece doctrine of the “ownership society” is understood, by conservative activists, as code for fiscal policies that would, by exempting savings, further shift the tax burden from capital to labor: from those who can save and invest their earnings to those who must spend them. He even spoke in euphemisms on topics where everyone understands the code: “making a place for the unborn child,” “protecting marriage from activist judges.” The words “abortion” and “gay marriage” don’t appear in the speech at all, and for Bush’s purposes, didn’t have to.
Disguising a policy that will reduce overtime payments as a way of making the workplace more “family friendly”; calling regressive tax changes “simplification”; avoiding direct talk about his conservative social aims: these are moves aimed at misleading moderates. But this President has misled not just the centrists to whom he must make this quadrennial appeal, but also the conservatives who are his base. “If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch,” he declared last February, “discretionary spending” has “steadily declined.” In fact, even when you set aside defense costs, growth in discretionary spending—at over 25 percent—will have been greater in this term than under any other president since Nixon. Though no new money was found for Head Start, Bush did sign a $190 billion farm bill, for example, which hugely increases agribusiness subsidies. That he signed it is not surprising; so far he hasn’t vetoed a single bill from Congress. This puts him on the way to completing the first full term without a veto, for the first time since John Quincy Adams.
In this President, then, we have a self-described “uniter” who has nominated a succession of right-wing ideologues to the federal bench; a man who has invoked his commitment to “fairness” as he continues to transfer the cost of governance to people further down the income scale; a man who has spoken of “humility” and “honesty” even as, by arrogance and false statements, particularly about Iraq, he and his administration have undermined American credibility in the world. And still his supporters avow that George W. Bush is a man of his word.
Maybe it depends, after all, on what the meaning of “is” is.
The case against President Bush goes to character. He makes grave decisions on the basis of inadequate or incompetent advice, willfully persists in them though they prove mistaken, and surrounds himself with people careful not to unsettle his rigid views.
He believes steadfastness, which he calls “resolve,” can ultimately ensure the success of his policies, whatever difficulties they may encounter. This single-minded devotion to purpose is absent from his biography until he commits himself to the Christian church to escape an aimless, perhaps alcoholic, existence. Running for president, he states that Jesus Christ is his guiding philosopher. In his inflexibility and pride, in his “resolve,” he is reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of whom, each in his own way, let steadfast commitment to bad decisions carry them to personal disaster, doing the country much damage along the way.
The two most revealing moments in Mr. Bush’s presidential career were the dead-heat election of 2000 and the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda. In both instances he chose responses that were startlingly inappropriate to the political reality of the situation.
Having lost the 2000 election by half a million votes, and finding himself in the White House by the grace and favor of the Supreme Court, another president might have sought a centrist political consensus to reduce the passions polarizing the country. Bush was aware of the nasty division. He campaigned with a pledge to be “a uniter, not a divider.”
Upon entering the White House he immediately started to govern from the ideological right, and not the smiling Reagan right of the 1980s, but the hard, hard right which had spent generations hating everything governmental that could be called “progressive,” including Theodore Roosevelt, who had afflicted Republicans with that abominable word for the past hundred years. Could any policy have been more inappropriate for a minority president obliged to govern an evenly divided country? Normally gentle persons began to talk of hating the President. So much for the “uniter, not a divider.”
Bush’s response to September 11 showed the same tendency to do something astonishingly inappropriate to the occasion. His immediate reaction—declaring “war on terror” and attacking al-Qaeda’s host government in Afghanistan—was sound enough. Its swift success and its popularity at home and around the world promised an extraordinary political triumph.
Yet at this moment, with glory beckoning, he decided to make war in Iraq, thus opening the path to what looks increasingly like a disaster in the making. His purpose in transforming the “war on terror” into a war on Iraq is still unclear. The reasons given for it at the time—Iraq’s connivance in the September 11 attacks, Saddam Hussein’s development of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons—have since proven fictitious.
What was clear from the outset was that the President was determined to have this war. Intelligence that did not support its necessity was pushed aside. News that cast doubt on its necessity was buried inside newspapers when it was published at all. Editors, like intelligence bureaucrats, sensed that the war was inevitable, and all seemed resigned to some obligation to accommodate the President’s desire.
To thrust the United States into a region that has always presented unmanageable difficulties for Westerners, he was willing to damage relationships with important allies of long standing, arouse anti-American hatred across vast stretches of the Islamic world, and divert military resources from the “war on terror” into war aimed at democratizing tribal cultures. This single-minded rush to war was not only an inappropriate response to the global situation, it must also, inevitably, drain away military strength and diplomatic support needed to make the “war on terror” succeed. What drove him?