2004-07-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

Understanding Bush

The news these days isn’t great for those of us who appreciate the presidency of George W. Bush. Slipping in the polls, beset on every side by negative naysayers in the media, Bush’s chances of winning re-election are looking less and less certain. You can’t count him out yet, not by any means, since his presumed Democratic opponent, John Kerry, has still to catch fire and Bush has a history of being "mis-underestimated," both for his penchant for malapropisms and the silly smirks he often flashes at inopportune moments. But Kerry is showing growing strength, as a steady drum-beat of bad news besieges the man whose job he has targeted.

Recently, Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood detailed the growing confidence of liberals as they see a White House restoration in their future, after narrowly edging out a Republican in an off-year election in what was once thought to be Bush country: South Dakota. According to Harwood, Robert Borosage, a former top aide to Democrat Jesse Jackson, recently said of the incumbent administration that "they have left us weaker, more indebted, more isolated and far less secure" as Borosage hosted the "Take Back America" conference in downtown Washington. Harwood noted that Borosage told him most liberals can be expected to give Kerry plenty of maneuvering room because they’re so keen to win this year so don’t look for a replay of Nader’s strong showing, despite the talk, in key battleground states.

As liberals are heartened, conservatives appear to be more and more despondent. On the same day as Harwood’s article appeared in the journal, conservative journalist Bruce Bartlett, writing in the New York Sun, recited a litany of reasons why conservatives are also down on Bush. According to Bartlett, not only do many conservatives tend towards isolationism, disliking foreign entanglements like Iraq, they are dismayed and embarrassed over the poor intelligence concerning the missing WMD, the prime casus belli in Iraq, and fault President Bush for not sticking to conservative principles across a host of issues. Says Bartlett, Bush’s slogan of "compassionate conservatism" annoys some conservatives because it implies conservatism usually isn’t. Bartlett also notes that the president "rammed through Conress an education bill written by Senator Kennedy that did almost nothing to improve the education (except) throw money at the problem. And now liberals are complaining he didn’t throw enough."

So, how did we get to this stage after the record approval ratings Bush had been garnering roughly a year ago? Certainly the problems in Iraq have worked against the president but most of the complaints leveled against him by Democratic and left-leaning partisans, both of whom seem to have a special ire for Bush, actually ring false when you examine the facts. Critics slammed the president for his tax cuts, saying they were likely to harm the economy. Instead the economy is now roaring back, exactly as predicted by the tax cuts’ supporters. 

The critics said the deficit would only get worse and bankrupt the country but improving government tax receipts, reflecting the economic momentum enabled by the Bush tax cuts, have already begun to reduce deficit estimates, just like tax cut supporters had predicted.

Critics said the jobs just wouldn’t come back, either. But instead, here they are, a trifle late but within the expected window, just as Bush supporters predicted.

Still, Americans, according to recent polls, now believe the economy really is worse, not better, though they were far more upbeat many months ago when the economy was, in fact, really worse. Of course some of this is about lagged perceptions but there is another dynamic at work, as well. In the first half of the twentieth century Hitler’s minister of propaganda, one Josef Goebbels, enunciated his "big lie" principle. The gist of it was that you don’t have to worry about the facts when talking to the public, that if you say something often enough and loudly enough, the ideas you are trying to convey will take hold. People tend to believe the last thing they’ve heard if it sounds authoritative to them, all other things being equal. And when the media amplifies and reinforces every negative claim, it’s hard to keep one’s wits about one and recognize partisan spinning when you hear it.

But this isn’t the first time this has happened, though it’s louder and more overwhelming now than in past years, as liberal partisans, smelling blood, go in for the kill. Teddy Kennedy declares the president a liar and a fraud while Nancy Pelosi, frozen-faced for the camera, solemnly pronounces the president to be "incompetent."

Back when the senior Bush was president, this same kind of stuff happened, too.

That former president George H. W. Bush successfully dealt with a Latin American debt crisis and a U.S. Savings & Loan crisis which threatened to tip us into a worldwide financial debacle, even as he smoothly managed the Soviet implosion and ousted a swaggering Saddam Hussein from a neighboring nation seemed to carry no weight for the American electorate when he campaigned for a second term. 

George H. W. Bush became the recipient of what had been (until now) an unprecedented campaign of disinformation and partisan assault as Bill Clinton brazenly alleged Bush was presiding over "the worst downturn since the Great Depression" despite manifest evidence to the contrary.

Bush’s father appeared unsympathetic to the average guy? Well, Bush Jr. is the average guy. His father had no aggressive domestic agenda? Bush Jr., the compassionate conservative, does, giving us more Medicare, more school spending, and protection for steel workers. But Bush Jr. ought to have known none of this could possibly be enough for Democrats.

George W. Bush came into office promising to change the tone in Washington, but it takes two to tango and you can’t go out on the dance floor if your partner is determined to sit the music out. So the tone has gotten worse, not better . . . and the Democrats slam him for that, too. And George W., trying to be what his father wasn’t, has now managed to alienate some of his own natural base, without pleasing those left-leaning factions who want only one thing, their own return to power. 

Most conservatives aren’t likely to desert Bush in this election year but they clearly are not as enthused as they ought to be at this point in the presidential cycle, especially considering the alternative.

Meanwhile Bush keeps trying, keeps making nice, no doubt fearing that the first time he says something as cutting about Kerry as Kerry routinely says about him, he will be attacked from all sides for embodying the mysterious and by-now mythic "Republican attack machine."

But the truth is, things are not looking good for this president and he’s going to need to get proactive soon.

He’s going to have to start giving as good as he gets . . . or else he’s likely to follow in his father’s footsteps, ousted by the sturm and drang of partisan politics-as-all-too-usual.

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