Let me tell you what I think of the criticism that President Bush (a) reversed a half century of Republican philosophy on free trade and caved in on tariffs, and (b) accepted and endorsed a big-government farm bill that was so greasy, pork-filled and fat-laden that if you took the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 in your hand and held a match to it would hiss, pop and sizzle like bacon in a big black skillet.
I think the criticisms are wholly legitimate. I think they are correct. And I think they miss the point.
Mr. Bush has been justly smacked by pundits, but the man on the street and the woman being polled don’t seem to think much of it, about it or against it. Mr. Bush knows this and likes it. It means the gamble paid off. The base will forgive him, the nonbase hasn’t noticed he did anything that needs forgiveness, and the opposition can hardly knock him for taking policy positions they’ve long supported.
Why will the base forgive Mr. Bush? Because they know it’s all about the war. Which means it’s all about the 2002 congressional elections, less than six months away. Mr. Bush caving in on tariffs helps the Republicans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere; his caving on the farm bill deprives the Democrats of an issue in the farm states.
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Right now Mr. Bush is about to take a beating over charges that he was briefed before Sept. 11 with intelligence reports suggesting Arab terrorists might be about to hijack a commercial airliner or airliners. Ari Fleischer has conceded the president was told of the possibility of hijackings but says there was no warning that the planes would be used as missiles.
Clearly we are at the beginning of a new Democratic foray. Mr. Bush’s political enemies will make as much of the story as they can. James Carville yesterday told the ABC News Internet column “The Note” that the question is “What did the President know, when did he know it and what did he do about it?” He is echoing the famous Watergate question in hopes of replicating the famous Watergate disaster.
Why wouldn’t he? Playing political games is what Mr. Carville does as a partisan, as an operative, as a holder of the banner of the opposition. It’s not only a game but a lucrative one. And it’s not terrible, it’s show biz—occasionally funny, often colorful.
And the Democrats happen to be better at it than the Republicans. Democrats on talk shows tend not to be shy about boring in, talking over guests, hectoring, murmuring sarcastic asides. They may not be courteous but they pound their points home. Republicans, in part because they represent the tougher views of the tougher party, often try to be reasonable and sweet, or intelligent and clever. They are no match. When they realize this halfway through the program they tend to try and bark back. But they bark badly, like Chihuahuas who know their yelps won’t deter a burglar.
Why are Democratic operatives more effective? Because they see politics as total war. When you see yourself as a captain in a great unending struggle you not only fight harder, you rationalize fighting meaner. Why are Republican operatives less effective? Most of them don’t believe politics is total war. It’s only about government, it’s not as big and important as life. If they thought it were that big they’d fight as if it were total war, but they wouldn’t be Republicans; they’d be people who think government is everything.
Another problem for Republicans: Some of them are actually dignified and reasonable. A few of them are actually nice. And a lot of them are trying to avoid being stigmatized by the press. If a GOP operative—a nervous, please-like-me Scott Reed, a well-meaning and courteous Alex Castellanos—attempts to be as crude and manipulative as a Paul Begala, and actually succeeds, the press will not say he is a worthy opponent. The press will paint him as dark-jowled and Nixonian, a hater, a hammer. The press doesn’t like rude Republicans.
There is also this problem for the Republican Party on TV: Their most spirited battlers are either in the White House (Mary Matalin, Torie Clark) or not Republican. Ann Coulter could eat her lunch off Paul Begala’s head and use his tie as a napkin, but Ms. Coulter is not a Republican, she is a conservative. She’d knock Mr. Bush harder on pork and tariffs than Mr. Carville would.
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Back to Mr. Bush and the criticisms he faces. I think the Sept. 11 charge will have some traction. It’s easy to understand, and it plays into cultural assumptions dearly held by both Republicans and Democrats. (Democrats: Those sneaky Republicans always screw up and then blame it on Bill Clinton! Republicans: Those jerks in government are stupider than we noble folk.)
The story will be around for weeks, maybe months, and Mr. Bush will have to address it. And it will have traction. But not that much.
The reason is Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The reason is that GWB is doing an FDR.
And I think people know this without quite knowing it.
FDR would sacrifice anything, he’d tack left right and center, to win World War II. You can almost literally trace the end of FDR’s New Deal legislation to the beginning of the war in Europe in September 1939. Yes, the court-packing scandal had something to do with it, and so did the Supreme Court finding aspects of the New Deal unconstitutional. But after Hitler moved on Poland, Roosevelt sacrificed almost all his liberal domestic plans, angering his own supporters and disappointing his party’s interest groups, in order to mollify conservatives and refocus voters’ attention away from the Depression and onto the war. He knew he would need broadened support to execute a war. He disappointed much of his base to get it.
Mr. Bush is doing the same thing. He is accepting what he thinks he has to accept (pork, a bad trade bill) in order to keep or expand the power balance he has in Washington, and in order to keep from angering or offending your basic, normal, politically nonobsessed citizen.
If Mr. Bush’s popularity falls, his party’s popularity suffers. The congressional elections six months from now could produce a Democratic House and a more heavily Democratic Senate. Mr. Bush will do almost anything to keep that from happening. Because if it happens his ability to prosecute the war will be weakened, perhaps fatally. Power would shift and his opposition, no longer fearing his popularity, would go for his throat. The war effort, such as it is, would be compromised. He has to keep his popularity high.
So Mr. Bush is doing an FDR, and angering only a base that will forgive him.
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It is interesting that FDR too was dogged, from Dec. 7, 1941, onward, with the charge that he and his administration had repeatedly and even emphatically been warned that the Japanese were about to move on Pearl Harbor. Somehow FDR didn’t hear the warnings, or heed them. Editorialists howled, Congress held hearings, Republicans tried hard to nail him. But they didn’t get anywhere, really. Not because there wasn’t any evidence but because the public knew what the Congress seemed to have forgotten: There’s a war on. The thing to do is win the war, concentrate your efforts on it, focus, don’t fritter away time and resources on a question we don’t have to answer just this second. We have to build bombers just this second.
The Dec. 7 question remains alive, but is muted. Whatever the truth, the people were right: Winning the war was more important than finding out what the president knew and when he knew it.
And FDR won his war, clear and clean. Mr. Bush will have to do that too or history, and the people, will not be so forgiving.