Making politicians and media accountable to ordinary citizens since 2000.
Home | Unconservative Listening | Links | Contribute | About
Join the Mailing List | Contact Caro
By David Podvin
When it comes to accurately evaluating the morality of their leaders, the American people are in the midst of a lengthy slump. Perhaps the most surrealistic aspect of the last few years has been the polling evidence that approximately two thirds of Americans admire the character of George W. Bush. Surrealistic, that is, until you recall that two thirds of Americans used to admire the character of Richard Nixon. Conclusive evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, most citizens have chosen to believe that Bush is a stand up guy.
That is why the current controversy about his deceitful State of the Union Address is potentially devastating. It is not that he lied; people tend to be quite jaded about politicians lying, unless the politician presides over unprecedented prosperity and the lying involves nothing of significance. The problem for Bush is that he has now behaved so cravenly that even the White House press corps is having a hard time presenting his latest display of moral turpitude in a positive light.
When Bush was caught lying, he immediately began trying to pin the blame on his underlings, which is decidedly unmanly behavior. Prior to this incident, the corporate media had portrayed the former Texas governor as a latter day John Wayne swaggering across the political landscape. Now, Dubya looks more like Lucy trying to implicate Little Ricky after the Mertzes discovered that puppy they thought had been evicted. Bush did not act like the “man’s man” that many people had deluded themselves into believing he was. Instead, he did what came naturally – he sought to protect himself from the consequences of his actions by hurting someone who was innocent.
In Bush’s life, personal responsibility has always been something for others to take. He has never been held accountable for failing, lying, cheating, or breaking the law. As a result, rather than just apologizing for having mangled the truth and asking if anyone really wanted him to reinstall Saddam, the little prince reflexively tried to lay it off on a patsy. Bush said, in effect, “I cannot tell a lie – George Tenet chopped down the cherry tree.”
That was a big mistake. Most Americans seem oblivious to the fact that Bush is bankrupting their country and confiscating their freedoms, but they noticed when he stabbed his own CIA director in the back. The jackals of talk radio immediately recognized that this is a potentially serious problem. Their emphasis has not been on defending Bush against charges that he is dishonest; instead, they have been frantically claiming that he is not trying to pass the buck. They instinctively understand what many liberals fail to grasp – that, in political terms, the current scandal isn't about the war, and it isn't even about lying. It is about what kind of guy George W. Bush is. It is about the troubling revelation that Bush is not really John Wayne, after all. He is Uriah Heep.
It's the treachery, stupid.
The Democrats have been presented with a tremendous opportunity, and how well they handle this matter might determine whether they will recapture the White House. The incident could be allowed to simply fade away, just as every other Bush impropriety has wafted unchallenged into the ether. Or, it could become a defining moment on which to build a successful case against the kind of guy with whom you most definitely would not "want to have a beer”.
During the 2000 campaign, that was a bizarre talking point permeating the airwaves: “George W. Bush is the kind of guy you would like to have a beer with.” This sage observation was endlessly repeated by the official Republican operatives in the Bush campaign and the unofficial Republican operatives in the media. It seemed like a non sequitur to a lot of people; with so many important issues at stake, fantasizing about hoisting a brew with Bush should have been relatively low on a voter’s priority list.
But for the Republicans running the campaign, it was vitally important to constantly emphasize that Bush was “your kind of guy”. They understood that the decisive twenty percent of the electorate known as “swing voters” invariably select their candidate based on level of comfort. Studies have shown that, regardless of the reasons they may give, swing voters cast their ballots based on personal factors. That explains why so many of them voted twice for Reagan and then voted twice for Clinton. It wasn’t the issues – it was the guy.
Bush kept the 2000 election close enough to steal by convincing many of these voters that he was more normal than Al Gore. More down-to-earth. Less tense. More straight forward. Less intellectually intimidating. A guy who wouldn’t drive you crazy if you had to see his face on television every day for the next four years. Bush got forty percent of the popular vote by being a Republican, and then picked up another nine percent by being more personally appealing than his opponent to many non-ideological voters.
For whatever reason, those citizens thought they were electing an honorable man. In politics, that doesn’t necessarily mean being honest, but it sure as hell means not coercing someone who is innocent to take a fall for you. In 1992, surveys showed that Ross Perot skyrocketed in the polls precisely because his supporters viewed him as being a stand up guy. It seems irrational to liberals, but many swing voters viewed Bush in the same way.
Now, the opportunity has arrived to burst their bubble. In 2004, thanks to the accumulated evidence of the last three years - culminating conspicuously in this latest sorry episode - the Democrats will have ample ammunition to demonstrate that Bush is definitely not the kind of guy with whom most voters want to identify.
First, however, the Democratic Party must stop making excuses for him. Senator Jay Rockefeller keeps babbling about the need to discover who has “misled the president”. Wrong! The blame for the serial duplicity and subsequent backstabbing must be pinned exclusively on Bush. When it comes to affixing ultimate responsibility for the wrongdoing of this administration, Democrats must not let Bush off the hook by pushing other people overboard: the presidential oath was not administered to George Tenet or Condoleeza Rice or Dick Cheney.
Some liberals want Cheney to take the fall, hoping that they can pressure him to resign. These conquistadors should consider the consequences of their actions. If Cheney is forced out, Bush could nominate Colin Powell to replace him, which would immediately change the storyline from “Bush is blaming others for his mess” to “Bush is making history by appointing the first African American to be vice president”.
Cheney is an albatross. During the last vice presidential debate, he repeatedly left himself wide open to being exposed as a corrupt wheeler-dealer; unfortunately, Joe Lieberman was too inept to capitalize on the opportunity. Cheney has given Bush politically counterproductive advice on energy policy and the Iraqi War. He should be allowed to remain in the administration, accompanied by a Democratic portrayal of him as the living embodiment of corporate greed. If Bush ultimately decides for political reasons to get rid of him, then add Cheney to the list of fall guys that the Democrats should now be brandishing as a weapon.
Rather than engaging in unproductive assaults upon Bush subordinates, the Democrats must begin greasing the skids for the trespasser in the Oval Office. Democrats need to develop an easily understandable critique of Bush; in 2002, they found out the hard way that the Dick Gephardt theme of “He’s our president, too, and we love him dearly” did not provide Americans with a sufficiently compelling reason to vote Democratic.
The recurring pattern of Bush smearing others for his failures should be used to convince the American people that he is the kid they remember from their youth – the one who was always screwing up and then shifting the blame onto somebody else. Everyone knew that kid, and everyone despised that kid. That kid was a weasel.
George W. Bush is that kid. He has spent the last three years pointing an accusing finger everywhere but at the mirror. He has blamed his predecessor for the bad economy, the budget deficit, and the terrorism of 9/11. On his first day in office, freshly slathered in the stench of having stolen the presidency, Bush had his press secretary falsely accuse the Clintons of vandalizing the White House and Air Force One. At various times, Bush has shifted the blame for his misconduct onto Jimmy Carter, Tom Daschle, Tenet, Rice, Ari Fleischer, foreign leaders on various continents, and any other friend/foe whom he perceived as being a plausible scapegoat.
He is the un-Truman; in the world of George W. Bush, the buck always stops elsewhere.
This conniving approach to life reveals an abject lack of honor, and the Democrats should therefore make character the central issue of the upcoming campaign. That theme will be especially effective if the party’s nominee is an authentic stand up guy - not a perpetual child who schemes in order to avoid taking responsibility, but a mature adult who willingly accepts the political consequences that often accompany behaving honorably. In fact, by emphasizing that Bush is a weasel, the nominee could make a virtue out of being willing to take unpopular positions based on principle.
Such a candidate might, for example, have signed legislation legalizing civil unions between same sex partners, and then have refused to equivocate even as he was vilified for his stance against bigotry. This would create a stark contrast: a principled guy who follows his conscience even when the majority disagrees with him versus an unprincipled guy who courts public favor by blaming others for his own transgressions.
It is the match-up that Karl Rove reportedly is anxious to see.
Of course, Custer reportedly was anxious to see Montana.
More David Podvin
Podvin, the Series