Bush Is a Lucky Guy: Consider His Enemies

A valuable quality in a leader is having the right enemies.

If George W. Bush can keep his enemies on their present groove, he will do just

fine.

One of the President’s

assets still is his reputation for stupidity. That asset may be losing value,

as Washingtonians conclude, from Mr. Bush’s relentless wooing of Congressional

Democrats, that he is dumb like a fox. Keep thinking, Washington. Liberal

verbalists felt superior to Mr. Bush during the campaign, just as they felt

superior to Ronald Reagan and, before him, Dwight Eisenhower. But they may find

that when they try to move, they trip on their pants, because W., like Ron and

Ike, has picked their pockets, then stolen their belts. Bill Clinton’s spin

machine told lies about women he groped and raped; W.’s spin machine should be

feeding stupidity jokes to Bill Maher.

That is a question of snobbery and style. But the best way

to make enemies work for you is by manipulating their convictions. If what they

say to themselves in the watches of the night makes you look good by contrast,

stand back and let them speak. They will be your own ad firm, and you won’t

even have to pay them.

Bill Clinton reaped just such a windfall after the Oklahoma

City bombing in April 1995. For months, Newt Gingrich and his giddy House

Republicans had been talking with believers’ fervor about the revolution they

were bringing to Washington. Stepped forth Timothy McVeigh, a real

revolutionary, and suddenly all the bumptious G.O.P. rhetoric seemed frivolous

at best, sinister at worst. All President Clinton had to do was pull a long

face; his re-election was in the bag from that moment on.

Seven years earlier, George H.W. Bush stumbled onto a

similar bonanza with the Willie Horton ad, which called attention to a violent

rapist who had been furloughed from a state prison in Michael Dukakis’

Massachusetts. Democrats and liberals couldn’t shut up about the ad, which they

saw as race-baiting (Mr. Horton was black); they kept on denouncing it long

after Mr. Dukakis had lost. But the only effect of their fulminations was to

make average people think, “Democrats are soft on crime, aren’t they?” Bill

Clinton had to fry a retarded murderer during the 1992 campaign to take the

curse off.

Now President Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax cut is pushing all

the right buttons on all the right people. Mr. Bush has been touring the

country with average folk in an effort to show how their paychecks or their

small businesses would be helped by his proposal. This didn’t fool Maureen

Dowd, the people’s tribune. Better, she wrote, if he had trundled out some

multimillionaires, ideally from his own cabinet, who would be raking in

hundreds of thousands to spend on new Lexuses.

I imagine The New York

Times syndicates Ms. Dowd’s column. Wherever it doesn’t run, the Bush

people should take out full-page ads and run it themselves, for its curdled

cluelessness can only help them. In the first place, what is the matter with a

rich person buying a Lexus? It means more work for the Lexus maker, does it

not?

But that is the evil economics of trickle-down, so let us

get to the point. Most people already know they will not be buying new Lexuses

with Mr. Bush’s tax cut. They can’t get hundreds of thousands of dollars back,

because they haven’t earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first place.

They want a meaningful chunk of what they do make, however, and they will back

the politician who is determined to let them keep it. They voted for George W.

Bush’s father when he made such a pledge in the 1988 campaign, and they turned

on him after he broke it two years later.

Commentary like Ms. Dowd’s misunderstands the place of

pundits in the class system. When celebrity journalists and celebrity academics

think of rich people, they think of the very rich: the kind of person who, in a

different era, dressed like the little man in the top hat and cutaway on

Monopoly cards, but who is now a jowled, rumpled C.E.O. and board-sitter like

Dick Cheney or Paul O’Neill. In fact, by any reasonable measure, pundits are

rich themselves. They may feel pinched if they are foolish enough to live in

Manhattan, but their budgetary dilemmas would strike the kind of person

President Bush has been touring with as problems in paradise. Maureen Dowd can

do her Catholic-schoolgirl thing as often as she likes, but the fact is she no

longer drinks poteen or hits spaldeens or does any of the things that urban

ethnic types once did. She is a bicoastal lord of the earth: perhaps a flunky

compared to a refugee from Halliburton, but an Olympian compared to everyone

else. The same is true of all pundits.

We will all do well enough no matter what happens to the

economy, or to the tax code. The Cheneys and the O’Neills won’t raise a sweat;

their accountants will find some appropriately aggressive shelter, and if there

isn’t one already on the books, their friends in Congress can write one into

the fine print of the next Rivers and Harbors Act. We the pundits, the lesser

lords, will do all right too, hunkering down in our lesser ways-maybe the

winter trip will have to be St. John’s rather than St. Bart’s; maybe it will

have to be off-season. But most people don’t have our resources. Tax cuts that

look small to columnists don’t look small to the people who will lose them if

the columnists have their way.

Taken together, Mr. Bush’s tax cuts will also have an effect

on the economy as a whole. The Clinton slowdown is upon us. You could see it

coming with the first West Bank riots, and by the time of the last pardons, it

had arrived. Alan Greenspan has been trying to stop it with the printing press.

But you can’t inflate your way out of a recession; you have to work your way

out. The quickest way to do that is by giving people incentives. Let the

cutting begin.