Monday, February 14, 2005


George Bush: Cheerleader-in-Chief of Social Security "reform"

Sidney Blumenthal is the Washington bureau chief for and a frequent contributor to the Guardian, where he is identified as "former senior adviser to President Clinton and author of The Clinton Wars." If you skim through his recent articles, you will see that he is something of a "Bushologist"—one who combs the speeches and acts of the President for meaning—a sisyphean effort and a thankless job indeed.

Blumenthal's latest piece "Domestic gibberish" bears this subhead: "Bush's incoherence on home affairs reminds us that pre-9/11 he was the most unpopular president."

As Blumenthal searches to discover the point of it all, he posits "a break with Bush's threat-based approach" in Rice's journey abroad—

Rice's pronouncement is nothing less than a break with Bush's threat-based approach. Without ambiguity or nuance, she said US foreign policy must now be rooted, not in the war on terrorism, but in "opportunities".

While Rice was on her grand tour, Bush rushed from his state of the union address to rallies in the west and south to stump for social security privatisation. Despite research by the social security actuary and the congressional budget office to the contrary, he insists the system is collapsing. As he jetted across the US, Republican congressmen and senators either announced their opposition or reserved judgment.

At his rallies, the crowds cheered his words against terrorism as though it were a nostalgic re-enactment of his campaign, and then fell into befuddled silence.

While I reserve judgement on whether Rice is really putting a fresh foot forward in foreign policy, I have no qualms in believing that Bush managed to reduce cheering crowds to "befuddled silence." When Bush has a slogan or a catch-phrase to belt out, he's at the top of his game. But if you leave him alone with an idea to articulate, someone will almost certainly have to go in to cut him loose from the gossamer strands of thought.

Bushology, properly understood, is probably a useful tool for journalists and spies. But only in the sense that studying the words and acts of George Bush may give some insight into what the real heads of government are thinking.

For that reason I am a bit disappointed with Blumenthal's concluding comments that begin—

Bush's gibberish on social security is not the symptom of a man without qualities. Bush can be articulate, a master of his talking points and highly focused. His inability so far to sell his latest case of fear, however, may presage growing political incoherence.

First, I simply don't understand how a journalist can write a sentence such as "Bush can be articulate, a master of his talking points and highly focused." Bush can be articulate when he's prompted through an earpiece on what to say next, though even then he has trouble staying focussed on the earpiece.

Second, political incoherence is a feature of George Bush, the man, but it is certainly not a feature of the Rove administration. It is simply unthinkable (to this observer) that the push for Social Security "reform" is substantive. Blumenthal himself writes—

.... [T]he White House has admitted it has no timetable for proposing a plan. The urgent centrepiece of Bush's second term is indefinitely on hold.

I have an alternate theory: "Social security reform" is a program that has been cobbled together to manage George Bush.

Think what it must be like in the realms of power. You have a figurehead President who is as clueless as they come. He's probably too dumb to be executed. But that doesn't mean that he isn't arrogant, demanding, poutish and surly. How do you run a government to your own purposes while getting around George at the same time?

From time to time he probably asserts his Presidential prerogative by demanding to know "what's going on," though this doesn't happen often, as George is notoriously incurious.

Then there's the problem of what to do with him in public. You never know what he may say other than that it will be remarkably dumb and incoherent, and just about anything he says that isn't scripted invites a minicrisis at the White House.

So you must somehow convince him that he's "in charge" on the one hand, and make sure he's not in charge on the other.

Here's what you do: You create a project and sell it to George. You call it the "centerpiece" of his domestic program, paint pictures of his "lasting legacy," and send him out on the road with a script to be read only before admiring, preselected crowds. George is about as good at this as his capacities allow. He was a cheerleader once; now he's leading cheers for himself.

And here are the benefits: (1) Get George out of your hair while you attempt to manage the incredible international boondoggle you've created. (2) Give him something to talk about in public that fits easily into a script and that doesn't touch upon international relations. (3) Distract the media and the public from the aforesaid international disasters. (4) Pretend you have a domestic policy other than tax cuts. And finally, (5) you really would like to destroy Social Security but though you don't believe there's a chance in hell of succeeding, there's really no harm in seeing where it goes.

A friend of mine once remarked of some talentless drag queens that they were nothing but a sewing circle gone amuck. I would offer a similar thought in Bush's case: Forget the search for meaning, Sidney. Bush is best understood as a cheerleader gone amuck.

Related posts
The local press turns feisty (7/20/04)
Bush's vacation -- thrills and spills (7/27/04)
Words of wisdom and comfort from the Bushes (8/17/04)
Friday night release of more Bush Guard documents (9/17/04)
The veep debate: Where was George? (10/6/04)
Suddenly there was an explosion—Our brave, macho President (10/30/04)

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