Monsters Under the Bed, Part II
Howard Dean is a lousy politician charged with the task of rousing other lousy politicians to joust with a pretty good politician named George W. Bush. The battle hardly qualifies as epochal — the president often goes about his business oblivious to the Dean siege — but it provides plenty of salient lessons about the art of politics.
The Dean Democrats, like many of their predecessors, have misunderestimated the commander in chief. Harry Reid calls the president a “loser.” Dean rants about Republicans that “never made an honest living in their lives.” Hillary Rodham Clinton fumes about power-lust and an inability to distinguish falsehood from truth.
The siege pits a bunch of malcontents against an activist president. As chief executive, President Bush has tackled the most feared domestic issue, Social Security. He has pressed for a fresh commitment to tax cuts. He has waged two wars with unprecedented success. And he has reshaped America’s role in the world. His critics have complained. They look idle. He looks commanding. Guess who wins?
The conflict between Team Dean and Bush’s Army features two entirely different brands of politics. Team Dean has adopted the view that politics relies heavily on illusion and delusion. Find a sly fib or a clever ruse to inflame the greed, gullibility or white-hot envy of potential constituents. Stir them up. Get them angry. And make them promises that seem too good (or bad) to be true. We will save your health care; Bush will take away your retirement security! If you can whip voters into a proper frenzy, especially if they feel either threatened or vengeful, you can get them to accept almost any falsehood and swear loyalty to any creed.
This something-for-nothing approach worked for the better part of two generations, and Republicans ran in horror any time they stood accused of “taking away” some government benefit or other. But over time, it became obvious that Uncle Sam was far better at extracting wealth than promoting the general welfare. Welfare’s failures became too large to ignore, and millions of Americans entered a stock market that previously had opened its doors only to plutocrats. Suddenly, class consciousness was out, upward mobility was in and any attempt to scald the rich invariably annoyed hard-working proletarians who wanted to become wealthy themselves.
George W. Bush burst on the scene at a moment when even Democrats were acknowledging that government bureaucracies were a nuisance and needed at least a good “reinvention.” He also followed on the heels of Bill Clinton, whose genius for finding the magical phrase had both thrilled and wearied the electorate. In place of the endlessly inventive Clinton came a Texan who spoke plainly — and meant it.
He has adopted the novel approach of building a politics grounded in fact, and not in focus-group cant. Any good marketing person can tell you that this White House stinks when it comes to formulating the can’t-miss rhetorical knockout punch. George Bush’s advantage lies in the fact that he’s telling the truth, and people know it: Social Security is a fiscally shoddy rip-off. Democracy does offer the best promise for pacifying a chaotic world. People do better when they pay less in taxes and put more money in the bank. Even on contentious issues, such as embryonic stem-cell research, he adopts a defensible stance and holds his ground — qualities that make him consistent and that have led many people to view him as a sincere, well-meaning sort — even if he does have a smirking, cocky, combative streak.
The Dean Democrats, nonplussed by all this, have resorted to the claim that George W. Bush is the locus of all known political evil, from the sadistic binges at Abu Ghraib to the head-slicing savagery of Abu Musab al Zarqawi to the failure of medical science to cure such horrifying disorders as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. When asked which specific actions have produced these horrifying results, the answers suddenly turn vague and gauzy: The president is “intolerant” and “stubborn.” He wants to usurp legislative power. He has made common cause with “extremists.” He refuses to adopt the ways of “moderation.”
In other words, like the Monster under a six-year-old’s bed, the president gets the blame for imagined horrors, without anyone’s being able to name a single thing he has done to produce the alleged awfulness.
No wonder he smirks.
Share your thoughts with Tony. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.