The More Bush Grows, the More He Stays the Same
My, how he's grown! That's the cliché tossed around by pundits and politicos about George W. Bush, deployed especially by those who never fancied W.
The plot-line: smirky boy-President, in the post-9/11 crucible, becomes a man and a true leader. Bush loyalists have simultaneously pooh-poohed and encouraged such talk. They certainly cannot admit their boss was a lightweight to start, and they deny he needed maturation. But they are eager to enhance (and exploit) his image as a strong, in-charge wartime president.
"There's a clear command presence," Bush master-plotter Karl Rove told The New York Times. "When those admirals and generals leave the Oval Office, you can see they've been with the commander in chief."
What else is Rove going to tell a reporter? Quoting Rove on Bush's commanding presence is like asking a used car salesman to evaluate an auto on his lot. While it is clear Bush's performance abilities and leadership skills are stronger than they were before the terrorist attacks, please allow me to play a bah-humbug curmudgeon in this holiday season and suggest the following: practically anyone in public life would have been able in this situation to grow and rise to the god-awful occasion. In other words, the challenge was not that hard.
That is not to say that Bush has not faced trying circumstances and has not been burdened with difficult and weighty responsibilities. Nor is it to suggest that he has not commanded convincingly and delivered rousing speeches, which heretofore had not been his strong suit. But how tough is it to condemn mass-murdering terrorists, to express anger, to pledge revenge, to issue calls to patriotism, to convey seriousness of purpose, after a nation has been attacked?
The surprise is not that Bush has done all this reasonably well; the surprise would have been had he, a professional politician and presidential son who (like most pols) is surrounded by image-makers and communications specialists, not been able to seize the moment. I imagine that even Al Gore would have been able to rally the nation following the horrific assaults of September 11. Perhaps Michael Dukakis, too. (It is doubtful, though, that Republicans and conservatives would have been as supportive of a Commander Gore as the Democrats have been of Bush had Gore, like Bush, waited several weeks before initiating retaliation.)
This is not a knock on Bush, whose job approval rating appears to be approaching 137 percent. Here comes the knock: his growth has not changed much. On substance, he remains the same sort of president he was prior to September 11.
Witness his recent decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. As war wages, as allies urge Bush not to pull out of the treaty, Bush goes ahead and bullies an important partner in the war effort, Russia. Many scientists believe the United States can continue to test a missile defense for years without breaking the treaty. But Bush hopes to begin construction on a missile defense facility in Alaska next spring before any workable and reliable system has been developed. He doesn't mind telling Russia to get lost and demonstrating to America's European allies that their opinions matter little.
This is a return to the pre-attack Bush Doctrine: my way or the whatever. The Bushies came in disdainful of multilateral action and bluntly signaled they would not be swayed by the desires of other nations. So it was sayonara Kyoto Protocol for global warming.
Bush also refused to reconsider the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear tests and boycotted the treaty review conference. He rejected the international criminal court. He said no to the Convention on the Prohibition of Landmines. He undermined the UN conference on small arms. He dismissed the UN convention on the rights of the child. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill dissed an international effort to clamp down on international money laundering. And a week before 86ing the ABM accord, the Bush Administration renounced the efforts to negotiate a verification process for the Biological Weapons Convention and brought an international conference on the matter to a halt.
After September 11, Bush did forge an international coalition for phase one of his war on terrorism. Help us, he asked the world (also telling it that you're with us or against us). Now when the rest of the world asks for assistance in other areas, Bush says, take a hike. Even in terms of post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration has been pushing the Europeans to pick up the bill for most of it and has so far declined to disclose how much money the United States intends to contribute.
On the domestic front, Bush's growth has meant little. Before the attack, Bush believed that the tax cuts (for the well-to-do) fix all. After the attack, he believed tax cuts (for the well to do) fix all. There was a brief moment shortly after September 11 when Bush appeared to have reached a statesman-like accommodation with the Democrats that would have produced an economic stimulus bill weighted toward payments for the unemployed and other spending to help the less-fortunate. But House Republicans cried foul, and Bush retreated and permitted his House pals to pass a bill that retroactively cut corporate taxes and handed billions of dollars to GM and other mega-firms.
A recent Administration stimulus proposal focused on multi-year tax cuts for businesses and upper-income taxpayers and offered modest benefits for the unemployed. Bush was looking to accelerate some income tax cuts passed earlier this year, even though over 75 percent of the $54 billion cost of this move would occur after 2002 -- which is hardly of stimulative use now.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, "By relying on multi-year tax cuts, the Administration's plan incurs significant costs after 2002 that offer no near-term stimulus, since these policies would be in effect when the economy is expected to be in a recovery....[T]hese proposals -- which provide benefits primarily to higher-income taxpayers and profitable businesses -- would nonetheless place more pressure on the budget in the years after 2002...[and] would worsen an already deteriorating budget outlook." Sounds like the old George W. at work.
Since September 11, Bush has repeatedly called for the political parties to cooperate. "Now is not the time for partisan politics," he said in a radio address. But has he led by example?
When the Administration crafted various anti-terrorism initiatives -- such as military tribunals for non-citizens accused of terrorism, the detention of non-citizens, and the monitoring of phone calls between detained individuals and their attorneys -- it did not bother to consult with Democratic leaders on the Hill. (Much of the ensuing fuss happened because legislators were more upset with being ignored than with the actual policies. More recently, Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Carl Levin were criticizing the Administration for prosecuting suspected 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in a civilian court and not using a military tribunal.)
Bush took advantage of the war to win approval, by one vote, of fast-track trade authority in the House of Representatives. His White House strongarmed Republicans opposed to the measure and argued that they would undermine their war-busy president were they to vote against the legislation.
And Bush has also stuck with his stacked, one-sided Social Secruity Commission, which predictably rubber-stamped his desire for partial privatization of the retirement program. (Is it too late to invest the Social Security surplus in Enron?)
Arrogant unilateralism, a continuing obsession with tax cuts for the well-heeled. The newly-somber George W. Bush, having confronted the harsh realities of war, has dropped the adolescent-like smirk, but there are some things he has not grown out of.