Published on Thursday, May 31, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Bush Is Glued to His Script
by Robert B. Reich
Those who expect President Bush to move to the center now that Jim
Jeffords has defected from the Republicans are the same people who
expected that Bush would govern from the center once in office. He didn't
then, and he won't now.
The recent Senate inversion will slow him down, to be sure, but not alter his basic strategy. After all, it worked for the tax cut, attracting 12 defectors among Senate Democrats. So it's likely to work with the other two planks of Bushism--the missile defense shield and the accelerated move toward fossil fuels and nuclear energy with minimum regard for the environment.
All three planks have been sold as rational responses to current or pending crises--a major economic turndown; an escalating probability of attack from China, North Korea or a "rogue" state; an energy crisis. But each of these so-called crises has been manufactured by the White House.
The economy has slowed, but it's hardly in free-fall. The fundamentals (growth, productivity, unemployment) continue in relatively good shape. And the Federal Reserve is responding to the downturn with interest rate cuts.
There's no new foreign peril. China is every day growing more dependent on global capital that would flee if China even slightly threatened the West. Russia is weaker than ever. North Korea was on the verge of making peace with South Korea before the Bush administration pulled the plug. There are dangers, to be sure, but no "rogue" nation has even close to the capacity to launch an ICBM in our direction.
And apart from California's own zany energy system, the U.S. has no energy crisis other than a long-term need to conserve. Gas prices are moving upward because of a temporary shortage of refining capacity. In the short run, the nation also needs more electric power generators and a better strategy to address supply bottlenecks, but no major new sources of energy.
Bush's ostensible solutions to these crises were cooked up in the early days of his presidential campaign, before these alleged crises. He was trying to sell his giant tax cut long before the economy slowed. He advocated a missile defense shield way before the tensions with China and North Korea escalated. And he was flogging gas, oil, coal and nuclear power before California utilities collapsed and before gas prices across the country started rising.
It's possible that Bush was remarkably prescient, but it's more likely he and his crew have cleverly exploited every event that could be twisted or exaggerated to support their preconceived plans.
It gets only more bizarre when you realize that Bush's proposed solutions won't even deal with the supposed problems.
The huge tax cut mostly for the rich will not turn the economy around because the rich won't spend or invest their new windfall quickly enough to affect the current slowdown. Trickle-down economics is, at best, a trickle. Besides, most of the cuts occur in future years.
A giant missile-defense shield won't protect the United States from nations or groups bent on terrorism because terrorists don't launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. They put bombs in cargo holds, send lethal germs through the mail and destroy computer software through the Internet.
And an immense program to get more oil, gas and coal out of the ground and build new nuclear plants won't keep up with U.S. energy "needs" because it's those very needs that are the problem that has to be addressed. Consumer prices must rise before American buyers tame their appetites and conserve in a big way and before alternative sources of energy become economical.
Even more puzzling is the fact that the American public hasn't been exactly enamored of any of these three big plans. Until recently, polls showed scant support for a giant tax cut. For years now, "Star Wars" schemes have been greeted with skepticism. Bush's giant back-step on the environment and simultaneous push for coal, oil and nuclear power are profoundly unpopular, especially among all-important independent and suburban swing voters. So if the crises have been manufactured, if the proposed solutions don't even solve them, and if the public is dubious at best, why are these three big plans likely to stay on track?
First and foremost, all are deeply held tenets of the Republican right, and Bush and Dick Cheney are true believers, albeit for ideological reasons rather than for those publicly enumerated.
Second, Jeffords' defection notwithstanding, Republicans have held together in support of each of the president's goals while the Democrats haven't held the line against them.
Third, the big plans are big, and their sheer boldness has given them momentum.
Yet I think the basic reason these plans will move forward is that the president and his key staff don't care what anyone else thinks. They feel under no compulsion to respond to facts and arguments summoned by distinguished scientists, academicians, policy experts or journalists. They figure if they stick to the script, reiterating the same illogic and perpetrating the same deceptions, the public will eventually see the world their way. They are corporate executives paying singular attention to the bottom line, which is just getting it done.
The strategy is the exact opposite of President Clinton's. He spread his (and his administration's) energies over a vast terrain of ideas, initiatives and programs. And after the health care debacle, his initiatives were tiny, appearing in so many incremental steps that the public all but lost interest in them.
Yet Clinton also respected the process of democratic deliberation in which science, logic and common sense counted for something. These guys don't.
Robert B. Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, is a professor of economic and social policy at Brandeis University.
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times