What a deal! Elect George W. Bush President and you get government lite–eat all you want without gaining a pound. Bush promises to cut taxes for all, dramatically increase military spending, finance a trillion-dollar private Social Security system and eliminate the national debt. And Bush claims he will put you, not some Washington bureaucrat, in charge of your life (unless, of course, it concerns your right to choose).

Just to state the main themes of Bush’s campaign is to demonstrate their inherent absurdity. But there’s method to the madness. Make no mistake: A Bush presidency, abetted by a Republican sweep of Congress and increasing right-wing control of the courts, portends frightening consequences for our lives.

Anyone who’s been awake these past eight years should know that it’s the Republicans, dominated by their right wing, who tried to block every measure to make government more responsive to the health, environmental and educational interests of ordinary Americans. At the same time, these false prophets of smaller government were pawns of the Christian right’s crusade to intrude the federal government into our most personal decisions, beginning with a woman’s control of her body. At no point has Bush disowned that Republican agenda.

So why are so many otherwise reasonable people planning to vote for a candidate selling them this ludicrous bill of goods? It’s because the guy comes on as a moderate with a disarming smile that could make him the impish star of a sitcom. Just when you realize he’s conning you and the bleary face of Newt Gingrich hyping his “contract with America” starts to come into focus, reminding us that we’ve been through this destructive drill, Bush turns on the all-inclusive charm.

The great deceit of the Bush campaign, beginning with the GOP convention last summer, has been to get voters to forget that it’s been the Republican Congress that has threatened America with gridlock and political chaos unless we bend federal government to its skewed agenda–an agenda that Bush has assured the right wing he endorses. The religious right has gone along with the charade, muting its criticisms while Bush plays to the center. Let him fake the moderate for now, they say, knowing that is what it takes to win. For example, Pat Robertson told reporters that he refrained from criticizing the Federal Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion pill RU-486 for fear of costing Bush the election. Bush also avoided the issue. The payoff for the right’s reserve in the campaign, as Bush has made amply clear, is that he will deliver to them on the judiciary. If the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, which now seems highly likely, a Bush victory would guarantee judicial appointees from the Supreme Court on down who are drawn from Jesse Helms’s wish list.

For all of his talk of bipartisanship, Bush, in citing Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as his ideal models for future Supreme Court picks, has promised to mold what should be the most independent branch of government in the ideological image of the far right. Indeed, the oft-repeated promise of the Bush campaign to the religious right is that Bush would never repeat the “disaster” that his father made in appointing moderate David Souter to the court.

With the court divided by one vote on most environmental and consumer regulatory matters as well as affirmative action, with only two votes needed to overturn Roe v. Wade and with at least three or four of its members likely to leave the court, the next President will have enormous power through his judicial appointments to shape the future of our government as we know it.

The “strict constructionists” Bush prefers are people who believe the federal government should be crippled as a regulator of big business, as an advocate for racial and economic justice and as a protector of the environment. On the other hand, they would weaken constitutional protection of individual rights and blur the separation of church and state.

The Republican right wing is concerned about personal freedom only when it comes to indulging the National Rifle Association or corporate greed by savaging government regulation. But in matters of individual freedom, be it reproductive rights, protection from job discrimination or hate crimes because of sexual orientation or racism, the Republican leadership, including George W. Bush, is eager to intrude a narrow religious and ideological bias into the most important decisions of our lives.

That’s why this election is of crucial importance. What we’re facing is the possibility of right-wing control of the presidency, Congress and the courts. And with that will go the saving grace of our system of checks and balances.