by Gene Lyons
Exit the make-believe Texas cowboy, smirking and
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 Texas.
"So many of the people in the arena here, you
know, were underprivileged anyway," she chuckled condescendingly,
"this is working very well for them."
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 manof-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 transformative"
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 onequarter.
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
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 selfsustaining
indefinitely. Compromise? Maybe raise age limits slightly to give moderate
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
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,
Bipartisanship, then, involves personal civility,
repeatedly emphasizing that we Americans are all in this mess together
soliciting ideas from Republicans willing to
brave the wrath of Rush Limbaugh. It certainly doesn't mean occupying the
middle ground between wisdom and folly.
Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock
author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.
January 21, 2009
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