The Self Made Pundit
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
SOLVING THE ENIGMA OF BUSH’S CHARACTER: While President Bush may have many flaws, lack of character is not one of them. Unfortunately, the character that Bush has in such abundance is that of the double-talking charlatan who fleeces the rubes with a never-ending series of scams.
The New York Times evaluates Bush’s character somewhat more gently – though still critically – in Tuesday’s lead editorial. The editorial tackles the riddle of why so many of Bush’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives have resulted in fiascos. The Times finds clues to solving this mystery in the enigma of Bush’s character:
George Bush's long-term plans for 2003 probably did not call for his August vacation to be followed by a national television address trying to justify a floundering policy in Iraq. Just about nothing, in fact, looks like what he must have hoped for in the run-up to an election. To many Americans, the economic recovery is anything but – 2.7 million private-sector jobs have been lost in the last three years. The number of people living below the poverty line is rising, the trade imbalance has reached unnerving proportions, and the federal budget deficits have grown so huge that even the International Monetary Fund has begun expressing concern. Most of the Bush domestic agenda is a sad deflated version of its earlier incarnation.
Other wrong turns, however, were chosen because of a fundamental flaw in the character of this White House. Despite his tough talk, Mr. Bush seems incapable of choosing a genuinely tough path, of risking his political popularity with the same aggression that he risks the country's economic stability and international credibility. For all the trauma the United States has gone through during his administration, Mr. Bush has never asked the American people to respond to new challenges by making genuine sacrifices.
Even the administration's foreign policy reflects its tendency to go for quick gratification without much thought of the gritty long haul. The invasion of Iraq appears to have been planned by people who assumed that after a swift military assault, Saddam Hussein would be gone and Iraq would quickly snap into a prosperous, semidemocratic state that would be a model for the rest of the Middle East.
When it turned out that things were far more complicated, the president hedged on the price tag – apparently out of fear that if Congress knew how high the bill was going to be, there would not be enough votes for another round of tax cuts. Congress, however, was happy enough to be deluded until it was too late. Now we know the cost is going to be massive, with much of the tab to be paid by the future generations who will be saddled with the Bush debt.
The United States has no clear exit strategy from Iraq or immediate hope of a turnaround in a violent, complicated and expensive commitment. The hard realities of postwar Iraq have convinced Mr. Bush that he needs the United Nations support he snubbed before the invasion. But even there he is avoiding the hard choice of acknowledging his error and ceding real authority to other nations. Diplomats are wondering, with good reason, whether Mr. Bush is embarking on a new era of international cooperation or simply giving them permission to clean up his mess.
Mr. Bush is a man who was reared in privilege, who succeeded in both business and politics because of his family connections. The question during the presidential campaign was whether he was anything more than just a very lucky guy. There were times in the past three years when he has been much more than that, and he may no longer be a man who expects to find an easy way out of difficulties. But now, at the moment when we need strong leadership most, he is still a politician who is incapable of asking the people to make hard choices. And we are paying the price.
I do not think that Bush’s main flaw is that he is too timid to tell people unpleasant truths. Far more troubling is Bush’s boldness in twisting the truth to bamboozle people into accepting policies that advance agendas they don’t support. Bush’s tax plans would have been dead in the water if he had candidly discussed how his tax cuts would explode the deficit while accomplishing a massive transfer of wealth to the super rich. Similarly, Bush could not have generated sufficient support for a practically unilateral war against Iraq if he had not misled the nation about the supposedly imminent threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and its supposed ties to Al Qaeda.
While I agree with the Times that Bush has character problems, I think they have charged Bush with one of the few foibles he lacks. Bush is not afraid to risk his popularity. Bush just doesn’t risk his popularity on things he considers unimportant – such as telling the truth. Bush is not afraid to risk his popularity in trying to deceive Americans into supporting an ideological agenda that is not in their best interests. Let’s give the man credit. He truly is bold, just not in the way that his supporters claim.
The Bush administration suffers from far more destructive defects than timidity. While Bush’s cavalier disregard for the truth would by itself be harmful, his mendacity is positively calamitous because it serves a rigid right-wing agenda. Perhaps the fundamental flaw in Bush’s character – and his presidency – is he is the most ideologically driven president ever. For the most important questions of state Bush falls back on ideology rather any rational decision making process or even any effort to discern the truth. Bush decides the most important issues on the basis of a right-wing ideology that is prone to unrealistic fantasies of a supply-side nirvana and easy-to-build democracies.
With his ideological approach, Bush engages in a reverse form of problem solving in which his right-wing agenda dictates an action and then Bush selects some problem – real or imagined – that Bush can argue the action solves. This has been the pattern in almost every important policy of the Bush administration.
The heart of Bush’s radical right-wing agenda is to cut taxes for the wealthy. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush claimed such tax cuts were the right policy for an expanding economy with a growing budget surplus. When the economy soured, Bush switched rationales and claimed that such tax cuts were the right prescription for an economy in recession. With the economy now having lost some three million jobs under his administration, Bush now touts tax cuts for the super rich for their supposed job-making potential.
Bush engaged in the same ideological approach in engineering the United States into war with Iraq. It is clear that rather than engage in any thoughtful analysis of how to deal with Iraq, Bush naively embraced the pipe dreams of his neo-conservative soulmates that a defeated Iraq would blossom into an America-loving garden of democracy overnight. So, armed with the solution of an invasion of Iraq, Bush claimed that solution would solve the most dire of problems – an imminent threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and close ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda – without regard to whether the evidence of such problems was particularly strong or even existed.
The problem with Bush’s approach to problem solving is that wishing doesn’t make it so. Since Bush’s tax cuts were not devised as part of any actual analysis of how to fix the economy, they are transferring massive amounts of wealth to Bush’s wealthy backers while actually leaving the economy in a worse situation. Not only has the deficit has exploded, but the United States is continuing to lose jobs.
Similarly, since Bush did not decide to invade Iraq as the result of any thoughtful analysis of what the consequences would be, we are faced with a chaotic situation that the rest of the world is none too eager to help remedy with either troops or the billions of dollars needed for reconstruction. If the Bush administration had engaged in any critical analysis of the likely consequences of a war with Iraq, it is unlikely that Bush would have been so dismissive of the United Nations and rushed into Iraq without significant international support.
The problem of Bush’s character is even more serous than the Times depicts. It is not simply a matter of a timid politician taking the easy way out. At least then we would get policies that the majority truly desires before being misled. The problem is that Bush – as his supporters claim – truly is a man of resolute character. Once he decides on a course of action, Bush is so determined to stay the course that he will say anything to justify his actions despite overwhelming evidence that he is not acting in the best interests of America.
Bush suffers from a character flaw far more damning than simply being a “politician who is incapable of asking the people to make hard choices.” When ideology calls, Bush springs into action without bothering to think or to discover the truth.
This defect in character repeatedly causes Bush to mislead America into adopting policies that are inimical to the nation’s welfare. The sad result is fundamentally flawed policies that are destroying America’s fiscal health and threatening the effort to transform Iraq into a peaceful society.