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Jun 21, 2004 5:59 am


Will the Real George W. Bush Please Stand Up



John Kerry has been getting a lot of mileage out of George W. Bush's stubbornness. But is Bush stubborn?

I remember Frank Rich writing a column in the NYT at the outset of the administration--prior to 9-11--in which he said basically that Bush was a spoiled frat boy who folded whenever he got a lot of pressure. As evidence he cited Bush's willingness to drop the administration's faith-based initiative when members of Congress told him it wouldn't pass. In light of the last three years one would be inclined to conclude that Rich was wrong. Kerry is right. Say what you will about Bush he doesn't fold easily.

Or does he? In a recent National Journal article the reporter cited several cases in which Bush folded on critical issues of presidential power that a Nixon, say, would have resisted. He let Condi Rice testify before the 9-11 commission. He let the commission see the August 6 PDB, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." He agreed to be interviewed by the commission. He let the commission have a couple of extra months to finish its work. Each time he acted after considerable pressure had been brought to bear. Rice was allowed to testify, remember, after the executive director of the commission, historian Philip Zelikow, faxed over a picture of Admiral Leahy, a top assistant to both FDR and Truman, testifying about Pearl Harbor--and threatened, in effect, to shoot Leahy's photo all over Washington. The commission got to see the PDB after Richard Clarke had energized the commission with his apology for 9-11 and his statement that President Bush had seemed interested in knocking off Saddam shortly after 9-11. Bush gave the commission an extension because he didn't need another big headache the week the issue came to a boil; that same week the Kay Report came out saying Saddam didn't actually have any WMD.

And on domestic issues Bush has retreated numerous times on matters he claimed to be concerned about. He opposed the Democrats' plan for tax cut rebates his first year in office--then relented (and subsequently took credit for them!). He opposed the creation of a homeland security department--then relented (and subsequently branded as unpatriotic anybody who disapproved of his decision). He insisted he wanted to reign in spending--then relented when his own party, feeding at the trough, passed the most expensive farm subsidies in history. (In January the Heritage Foundation reported that spending under Bush climbed twice as fast as under Clinton.)

In Iraq he has repeatedly changed course in response to pressure. He bullied the UN and then turned over to Brahimi the selection of a new government. He insisted we would go after the killers of the four contractors murdered in broad daylight in Falluja and then let a Saddam-era colonel take charge of the military presence in the rebellious Sunni city when the insurgents resisted the U.S. military--and forgot all about his commitment to nab the murderers. He opposed interim elections, then embraced them. He opposed the creation of a separate entity for the Kurds, then agreed to it (and then backstabbed the Kurds at the UN when the resolution failed to include a direct reference to the new Iraqi constitution, which guarantees the Kurds a veto on legislation hostile to their interests).

And yet there remains the impression that Bush is stubborn. He insisted on going through with annual tax breaks even after the red ink started to flow and now insists that the tax breaks be made permanent--even as his government estimates a deficit this year nearing half a trillion dollars. He is adamant about remaining in Iraq (though his commitment to a democratic Iraq seems to be wavering). He is determined not to add troops to our Iraq force. He refuses to fire Rumsfeld. He never apologizes for any of his mistakes.

So which is he? Stubborn Bush or Wallflower Bush?

The answer is he's a good enough politician that people can't be sure. An inept politician like Jimmy Carter had a clear image by the end of his administration. People knew who he was. But Bush after three years plus is still an enigma. That is not by accident. Bush is an exceptionally agile politician. He uses the rhetoric of steadfastness to leave the impression that he is steadfast even as his actual policies betray a shifting set of agendas and repeated retreats. He tends to his corporate base religiously even as he gives his religious base short shrift. He opposes big government even as he approves the single largest expansion of government programs in years as embodied in the prescription drug bill.

Kerry is right to attack Bush's stubbornness. That's smart politics. But he shouldn't forget that Bush is stubborn more in name than in fact. Bush almost wants people to think of him as stubborn. That shields him from the accusation that he is a politician who shifts under pressure and panders to his base. The truth is Bush is all of these different Bushes. Thinking he is one or the other is a mistake Frank Rich made three years ago and a mistake John Kerry may be making now.


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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/24/2004

You are certainly entitled to complain about President Bush, and assign weight to his bobs and weaves that many (probably most) of us would not, but you should hear about it when you say things that are not true. President Bush does not now and never has had a "corporate base." If you recall, the Bush administration denied aid to Enron when they called, but Bob Rubin of the Clinton Administration had sent them help. This is a typical case, not the exception. Dems generally have no scruples, Republicans generally are squeeky clean. Republican donors tend to be small business people, not large corporation people. The George Soros's and Bill Gates's and Barbara Streisand's and Jane Fona's and Ted Turner's are usually found supporting pinko causes. Holders of the biggest jobs are growing more and more leftwing, as they emerge from America's hard-left-dominated univesities. Corporate types are also forced to buttonhole Congressmen in self-defense from the pollution nazis, the fair employment nazis, the IRS nazis, the SEC nazis, the trial lawyers, the FTC nazis, the safety nazis, and all the rest. Corporations maintain lobbyists mostly for self-protection, not to gain some opportunity to screw the public. The real special interest powers are the public school unions and other government employee organizations, who maintain their fiefdoms while delivering very bad service at excessive cost. It was said that at a recent Democratic convention fully one-third of the delegates came from the school unions alone... The kleptocracy they comprise is easily the worst of all contemporary outrages--and with no relief in sight. Even Bush is afraid of them.


Samuel Adam - 6/22/2004

It's wholly ridiculous to criticize Bush for his admissions before the 9/11 commission. Are you actually complaining that a president revealed his mistakes on the biggest issue in national security since the Cuban Missle Crises? Do you actually think we would be better served by, say, "a Nixon," who would lie and coverup the truth? Do you like the soft fuzzy feeling of having wool pulled over your eyes?

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