So much for "compassionate conservatism." During his first 100 days, George W. Bush's principal accomplishment, indeed his only one, was to demolish any too-generous illusions about who he is. The mild and moderate character who ran for President, claiming to want more or less the same things Al Gore wanted, has been replaced by a hard-edged, rather maladroit right-winger. Bush brushed aside his own rhetorical flourishes toward bipartisan civility and has engaged in a bare-knuckle (and politically tone-deaf) style of governing that most resembles the notorious theft in the Florida recount operation: Take no prisoners, obliterate the facts and rules of reason, forget the dubious legitimacy upon which this presidency is based. A more likable and personally persuasive leader (think Reagan or Clinton) might have pulled it off. When Bush speaks, one's thoughts drift immediately to whether he will successfully read the words off the card.
This President's beginning is not just ugly, it's ominous. That conclusion isn't based only on ideology but on the retrograde mindset of the new Administration. The men in charge–the older guys, his handlers–seem stuck in a time warp. It's as though Cheney, O'Neill, Rumsfeld et al. have missed the past twenty years of politics and evolving public attitudes. Their opacity is potentially dangerous for the country as they try to bull their way forward, and Bush the Younger, we predict, will encounter many more rude surprises. His agenda is out of touch with reality, distant from what the government should be doing to help this society and economy get through the darkening waters ahead.
The environmental deletions–arsenic-in-your-water being the operative symbol–are throwback appeasements to business patrons and parochial politics (the Bushies seem surprised to learn that people, including Republicans, do care about these matters). Bush's abrupt reversal on global warming, discarding his campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, is the most dangerous shift and is sure to bite back. The tax-cut legislation is hand-me-down Reaganomics from the early eighties (Bush's fumbling turn as a fake Keynesian failed to persuade.) His energy policy–drill we must, lest we become dependent on foreign oil–is similarly out of date. Oil-guzzling America is (and ever will be) dependent on imported oil as long as it fails to reform its consumption patterns, no matter how much pristine landscape is torn up by drilling rigs (as even the industry boys privately acknowledge). The cold-warrior wannabes–let's get it on with the Chinese–held their tongues during the Hainan Island incident, but they expect their silence to be rewarded with Star Wars and other arms boodle. The blunt assault on organized labor, though expected by the unions, has been meaner and pettier than could have been anticipated. Bush's obeisance to the right on a woman's choice revives harm to innocents around the world.
In short, there are no new ideas here. The Bush content is composed entirely of recycled oldies from the Nixon/Ford and Reagan/Bush years. Indeed, his government is populated by elder statesmen and hacks from those administrations, joined by fervent young acolytes who innocently believe in the restoration. The older heads, we suspect, are more cynical–pushing through whatever they can as fast as possible in the knowledge that the conservative hegemony is living on borrowed time. In other circumstances, their clash with reality could be entertaining. But our situation is far too dangerous. As the economy sinks and unemployment begins to swell, as corporate bankruptcies accumulate, an eyes-open government would be preparing emergency measures to stimulate recovery and to rescue millions of debt-soaked families. The Bush Administration instead pushes through a bankruptcy bill for bankers. It seeks to whack tax obligations for the wealthy one more time. It squeezes the very public spending accounts that could serve as economic stabilizers in troubled times.
Meanwhile, it turns on the smoke machines to promote another round of free-trade agreements, unwilling to acknowledge the international rebellion expressed in the streets of Quebec. Bush foreign policy–the China incident aside–looks like a smashmouth approach to global relations. We're the big guys. We get to say what goes. Kyoto and global warming–forget about it. Russia and China–in your face. South Korea's hopeful reach for détente with the North is brushed aside. A massively flawed national missile defense policy is pursued with no regard for existing treaties or the alarms it raises in Moscow and Beijing, or Paris, Berlin and London. Expanding NATO to Russia's borders is put on the agenda. All this amounts to the worst form of America First triumphalism. Given our burgeoning capital indebtedness to foreign lenders, a more mature approach would be prudent.
The Bush II years, in sum, promise nasty ideological warfare on virtually every front that matters–a struggle at least as serious as the Reagan era's and maybe more, given the decayed state of representative democracy. The awkward new President's boldness is encouraged, we observe, by the lame responses of the Democratic opposition. If Democrats don't make the full-throated fight now, when may we expect them to do so? If Democrats remain so timid, popular agitation must build fires under them, too. The political imperative is not exactly news but requires repeating: Do not wait for Washington to resolve these great issues. March on it. Bang on it.