Exit the make-believe Texas cowboy, smirking and whining.
Until last week, the most telltale moment of the Bush administration had
involved not the president, but his mother.
Touring the Houston Astrodome, where thousands of New Orleans flood
victims had taken shelter after Hurricane Katrina, former first lady
Barbara Bush worried aloud that the refugees might want to stay in
"So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged
anyway," she chuckled condescendingly, "this is working very well for
For sheer, smug callousness that was hard to top. True, Republicans of
Mrs. Bush's social set have been railing against the undeserving poor
since 1932; to them, Franklin Delano Roosevelt remains a class traitor.
But they rarely speak so frankly where the servants can hear.
George W. Bush maintained his man of-the-people pose almost until the
end. Facing history, however, he got twitchy and defensive. Granted,
it's hard to know how a president who stampeded the nation into a
disastrous war on a false premise could stand there with a straight face
praising his own understanding of "the power of freedom to be trans
formative" and his "great love for the human-human being, and [belief]
in human dignity."
The mask dropped momentarily, however, when a reporter at his final
press conference asked him about the personal burdens of the presidency.
Affecting a sing-song, sarcastic whine, he lampooned people who imagine
it's a tough job.
"Oh, the burdens, you know," he sneered. "Why did the financial collapse
have to happen on my watch?"
Bush probably thought he sounded "tough." But to anybody who spent time
on Ivy League campuses in the Sixties, his was a familiar pose: the Frat
House Hipster, too cool to care. President Punk. Oh, so you're broke and
out of a job? Well, he's not. You seem to have mistaken me, Bush all but
announced to the nation, for somebody who gives a s***.
The wonder is that polls show that somewhere between 22 and 27 percent
of the public continues to view Bush favorably. Abraham Lincoln said,
"You can fool some of the people all of the time." Now we know how many:
roughly one quarter.
Meanwhile, Dick Cheney assured PBS' Jim Lehrer that Saddam Hussein and
al-Qa'ida were definitely in cahoots and all but bragged about torture.
Oh, and Bush economic policies were a big success. The former vice
president's approval rating's at 13 percent, but he doesn't believe
polls. No wonder they kept him out of sight.
All right, enough of that. As tempting as it is to lampoon the personal
shortcomings of the Bush wrecking crew, it's also a distraction. Because
they didn't merely fail as individuals, they failed as Republicans. And
did so, President Obama needs to keep reminding people, because GOP
ideology, particularly with regard to economics and foreign policy, has
drifted ever further from reality.
That's not to say that Obama's calls for bipartisanship, some of which
are making infatuated supporters nervous, are wholly mistaken. By
signaling an intention to reform Social Security and Medicare, he's
frightened some who fear that bipartisanship invariably means slashing
benefits-mainly because that's what it means to lazy-minded Beltway
pundits constantly preaching "moderation."
In his pungent column at mediamatters.org, Jamison Foser calls this
"centrist dogma": the idea that the best solution invariably lies midway
between two extremes. The problem is that when one party's dead wrong,
as Republicans have been wrong on virtually every economic issue for a
generation, that kind of compromise is folly. Imagine where we'd be
today, for example, had Bush succeeded in privatizing Social Security.
What Obama's got here is a teachable moment, an opportunity to apply his
formidable pedagogical skills. He's already said that reforming Social
Security is "easy"-simply remove the cap on payroll taxes on persons
earning over $200,000 a year and the program can be self sustaining
indefinitely. Compromise? Maybe raise age limits slightly to give
moderate Republicans cover.
The point is to bring aboard those members of the opposition willing to
deal with reality. Let the rest walk around Washington wearing
signboards printed at the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage
Foundation or any of the other tycoon-funded propaganda shops dedicated
to rationalizing tax cuts for multimillionaires above all else.
Medicare's tougher. The simplest fix would be to make it universal. As
that's probably a political impossibility, Obama must keep pointing out
that simply cutting benefits would produce a cascade of bad effects. The
answer lies in increased efficiency through universal health insurance,
which also would greatly improve the competitive position of U.S. auto
companies, for example.
Bipartisanship, then, involves personal civility, repeatedly emphasizing
that we Americans are all in this mess together and soliciting ideas
from Republicans willing to brave the wrath of Rush Limbaugh. It
certainly doesn't mean occupying the middle ground between wisdom and
· -–––––·–––––-Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author
and recipient of the National Magazine Award.