May 3, 2005

George Bush, the Mouthy Peasant Boy

George W. Bush baffles establishment Washington because he doesn’t behave like a member of the club. Sure, he joined Skull and Bones at Yale. Sure, his grandfather was a Senator and his dad a president. But despite these distinctions, the guy governs without affectation and without lusting to be welcomed in the federal district’s posh and exclusive salons.

Washington, like any global capital, relishes its musty conventions and exotic ways. It city runs on conventional wisdom, leavened with a soupçon of snobbery. Yet, in defiance of all polite custom, this president behaves not like a member of the governing class, but like a lumpenprole — he almost choked on a pretzel while watching a football game, for heaven’s sake! And if that weren’t common enough, the man gets on without the normal retinue of necromancers, soothsayers, pollsters and consultants — and says what he thinks, in his own fractured-English way.

He’s also like the boy who blurted out the truth about the Emperor’s New Clothes. For decades, leaders of both political parties have denied reality with righteous zeal. They behaved as if welfare worked, as if Head Start were the greatest thing to hit the schools since McGuffey’s Readers; as if Social Security were a sound and sensible retirement program; as if Medicare could cover everyone’s health-care concerns without bankrupting the government; as if the United Nations were something other than a multicultural Romper Room with chauffeurs and an open bar; as if the Kyoto Global Warming treaty were something other than an effort to hobble the American economy; as if arms-control treaties that hobbled the United States somehow increased global security; as if Yasser Arafat were an indispensable figure in the struggle to pacify the Middle East; as if France were something more than the home of EuroDisney — and as if other politicians around the world, similarly committed to ignoring plain facts and inescapable realities, deserved not merely our respect, but deference.

The president has rejected these idiocies blithely, prompting the old guard to brand him a danger to civil society. Remember how John Kerry promised to soothe the rattled peoples of the world by hustling off to the United Nations and cooing in a handful of languages? Recall how Bill Clinton back-slapped despots with chummy regularity, having decided only in his retirement that guys like Yasser Arafat were vicious thugs and not statesmen of the highest order? On the Republican side, Colin Powell has quietly assured friends that he would never have behaved as rashly as his old boss in dealing with such things as the proliferation of nukes in North Korea, and the last few practitioners of realpolitik continue to churn out op-ed pieces describing the president as an erratic cowpoke.

But one significant thing separates the president from this cadre of naysayers: On important matters, he was right and they were wrong. He was right to give Arafat the bum’s rush. He was right to hold North Korea to account for its nuclear program. The same goes for Iran. Most importantly, he was right to craft the Bush Doctrine, which extols democracy as the gateway to peace, prosperity and stability. The war with Iraq, dismissed with knowing chuckles a year ago, now appears to have unleashed a wave of democratic aspiration throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.

On the domestic front, the assault on Social Security beautifully illustrates the Bush method. It begins with iconoclasm. Rather than declaring Social Security an untouchable gem, the president opened the debate by declaring boldly that the system is broke — badly — and needs serious shoring up right now.

Mavens have known for decades that Social Security was on a collision course with bankruptcy, but demagogues usually managed to silence the prophets of doom by accusing reformers of wanting to cosset the rich, hobble the poor, and toss senior citizens into the nearest dumpster.

Jimmy Carter tried to fix the system, but didn’t. Ronald Reagan raised the issue in 1981, but got whacked, at which point he handed the matter off to a proverbial blue-ribbon commission. Another commission tackled the issue a handful of years later. And while experts dithered, politicians quietly agreed to pretend that everything was peachy keen, no matter what.

Since his opening salvo, the president gradually has turned up the heat, offering up some other obvious facts: Social Security cannot survive in its present state. It also is ripping off the American people in the most unconscionable way. (For a fuller explanation of the issue, and my critique of the White House’s lackluster sales job to date, consult my essay on Dinner Table English.)

These proclamations have sent Bushphobes into paroxysms of rage. The AARP has mounted a clever ad campaign on the matter. Democrats have delivered hot speeches, rife with class-warfare cant. This wave of opposition has caused the president some short-term discomfort, but as a matter of political strategy, the naysayers have committed a fatal blunder. They have tipped their hands before the president has even laid out a proposal. He now knows how the opposition will react, but the other side doesn’t know what he’ll do.

George W. Bush may be the most patient president since Lincoln. In the case of Social Security, he has allowed the press to pound him, his political enemies to deride him, even members of his own party to scud for cover. Right now, he is biding his time, mulling options, and planting the seed that there’s a big problem. When he finally produces a proposal, he will distinguish himself from Democrats by having proposed an actual solution.

So forget the polls for now. When the president suggested big tax cuts during his first term, Democrats howled that he merely wanted to bail out the rich, pollsters dismissed the plan as utter folly, and sages said he was merely floating a “trial balloon.” Yet, when Congress finally voted, he got everything he sought — and more. The exact same thing happened with his second round of tax cuts. And the very same thing will take place when honorables vote on Social Security reform.

The president deserves some credit for political genius, but another factor explains his startling success: Facts are more persuasive than fictions. So to repeat: George W. Bush is like the peasant boy who insisted the emperor was buck naked. Once the nasty truth made the rounds, everyone felt free to join the fun, knowing that it finally was safe to acknowledge what all along had seemed obvious and real and true.

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