NO PRESIDENT since 1877, when Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath of office, has come to power with less legitimacy than George W. Bush.
Having lost the popular vote by a record margin of more than half a million, President Bush shares with Hayes the dubious distinction of being the only
other man whom many Americans believe also lost the electoral vote as well. As
recently as last weekend, according to a CNN poll, 48 percent of all Americans
did not believe that the man now residing in the White House won the election
"fair and square."
The results of the widely reported Florida recount conducted by the Miami
Herald and USA Today, trumpeted in headlines as proof that Bush won the
election, are unlikely to change this perception. Properly understood, those
results show no such thing.
The main thrust of the Herald account is that Bush would have increased his
lead under most scenarios had the U.S. Supreme Court not intervened to stop
the counting. Yet an astonishing fact is buried deep in the article: had all
67 counties examined all the "under-votes" (those ballots which seemingly did
not record a clear vote for president), Gore would have won Florida -- and the
Gore's margin of victory would have been by 393 votes under the most
inclusive standard and by 299 votes under a more stringent standard. In this
thicket of competing ways of conducting the recount, the only reasonable
conclusion is this: who won hinges almost entirely on which standards are
Having come to office lacking a popular mandate, Bush has compounded his
political problems by steadfastly refusing to govern from the center.
Elected in good part because of his carefully cultivated image as a
"compassionate conservative" and a "different kind of Republican," he quickly
revealed -- through his nomination of John Ashcroft, his reversal of new Labor
Department rules designed to prevent repetitive stress injuries, and his
reneging on a highly touted campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions
-- that the moderate George W. Bush was a campaign creation, and one quickly
discarded once in office. Not surprisingly, right-wingers have been ecstatic:
in the words of Edwin J. Feulner, president of the conservative Heritage
Foundation, the Bush administration is "more Reaganite than the Reagan
administration." But for many Americans, who took Bush's campaign rhetoric
seriously, his actions in office have come as a shock.
Is running a deeply deceptive campaign, they wonder, the way -- as Bush
promised time and again during the campaign -- to restore honor and integrity
to the White House? In the final analysis, however, Bush's greatest
vulnerability may come neither from his lingering legitimacy problems nor from
the growing sense among Americans that the man now in the White House
campaigned for president "in borrowed clothes" (as Bush once famously said of
Al Gore), but rather from the simple but jarring realization that he does not
share their fundamental values.
The values gap between the president and the American public has been
revealed most dramatically on the environment, where a series of provocative
acts -- the proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the
violation of the campaign pledge on carbon dioxide, the perverse unwillingness
to acknowledge the scientific evidence on global warming, and the disastrous
proposal (quickly withdrawn) to end salmonella testing for meat served in
school lunches -- has made clear that George W. Bush is a man who places
profits and economic development above all competing values.
So extreme has been Bush's policy on the environment that even the National
Wildlife Foundation -- a centrist group with 4.5 million members, about half
of them Republicans -- has sent the administration a message: "Mr. President,"
said NWF President Mark Van Putten, "stop the war on our environment and our
With even moderates like Van Putten angry and a growing number of
congressional Republicans already jumping ship on the environment, the
vulnerability of the Bush administration -- and of its philosophy of corporate
profits above all -- is more and more apparent. Already, according to an
ABC/Washington Post poll released this past week, 60 percent of the public
believes Bush cares more about "protecting the interests of large corporations,
" compared to only 28 percent who believe he cares more about the interests of
"ordinary working people."
The veil of moderation, which permitted Bush to win the White House, has
now been stripped away to reveal the president for who he is: a man willing to
place the narrow, short-term interests of big business over our environment,
our health and our safety.
These are not the values of the American people. And as this becomes
increasingly clear, the man who came to the presidency as the "values
candidate" will ironically have to face a formidable, and perhaps fatal,
values problem of his own.
Jerome Karabel is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle