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Bush - President Punk
 by Gene Lyons

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 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 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, 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 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 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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