Bush’s TV Show Lacking in Reality

The Waco forum was about as authentically significant for economic policy as the President’s “ranch” in nearby Crawford is for his credentials as a cowhand.

George W. Bush has learned from experience that if he emphasizes his Texas drawl, slaps on his cowboy hat and talks as if he’d never set foot in Andover, Yale and Harvard (let alone Kennebunkport and Greenwich), most people will buy the down-home shtick . The ranch is a perfect backdrop for this political persona, as a New York Times reporter observed last weekend in comparing the uses of the Bush ranch with the L.B.J. ranch (although the author neglected to note that Mr. Bush only bought his place in 1999, the year he decided to run for President). Surely George W. loves that Crawford spread, but his appearances there also help everyone forget that his favorite steed is neither a horse nor a pickup. It’s a golf cart.

The “economic forum” TV show performed similar functions of harmless deception and cheap reassurance. It was meant to demonstrate that this frequently vacationing President is actually a diligent executive; that he’s worried about those who have trouble “making ends meet”; that he listens to (and is listened to by) the powerful and the important as well as humble wage earners and shopkeepers.

The obvious objections-that most of this enhanced photo op was scripted, and that nothing new was discussed-matter less than the existence of the event. There was no dissent to mar the “discussion,” particularly not from those in Congress who will exercise influence over any future economic initiative.

As one Republican official told The Washington Post in a moment of anonymous pre-show candor: “Democrats can scream all they want. The President is going to be on TV all day showing he’s working hard on the economy.” In other words, there is no difference between appearing to do something, and doing it.

Still, the White House took a risk that even those “real Americans” who like the cowboy act might notice they were being patronized in Waco. A slew of big-donor corporate executives were balanced by the presence of a couple of Texas housewives, a truck driver, a Latino restaurant owner and a few tame union officials who support Dick Cheney’s energy plan. Those few faces from the studio audience, carefully selected to speak their prepared parts on behalf of the ordinary folk, presented a show-within-the-show that seemed even more symbolic and less substantive than the executives and economists who dutifully appeared onstage. (Whether the invited executives truly represent their own class is another issue. More than one is a member of Fortune ‘s 25 “greediest” cases, including keynoter Charles Schwab -but then at least half of that Fortune list shows up among Bush-Cheney contributors.)

After the show concludes, there will remain plenty of happy talk about economic fundamentals, no matter what the dismal statistics say. There will be a bit of sympathy for the hard-pressed, though not enough to do anything to help. There will be a few scapegoats, including trial lawyers and (in a new guest appearance) crooked business leaders. There will still be the usual Republican nostrums of cutting taxes and doing away with burdensome regulations such as wage-and-hour laws.

There will also be a demonstration of concern over the ballooning deficit, which is growing rapidly without any benefit to the unemployed or the revenue-starved states and cities. The White House has announced that it plans to hold back the expenditure of $5 billion appropriated by Congress for various anti-terrorism purposes, including aid to Israel and Afghanistan, action against global AIDS, domestic-transportation security and monitoring the health effects of the cleanup at Ground Zero. Evidently, none of the important objectives suddenly being canceled by the President is as worthy as a tax cut for the top 2 percent of the population. Those Ground Zero workers are “heroes,” of course, but their photo-op moment has now passed on to the Teamsters and the carpenters at Waco.

Posing working Americans like marionettes alongside corporate politicos is a traditional campaign gimmick. And now, confronted with unpleasant realities that will have political consequences, the White House has reverted to its fulsome campaign mode. When the President wasn’t videotaped “working hard” on the economy, he was indeed working hard at what he does best: raising campaign money.

That was what he did on the Friday before the Waco forum, when he entertained dozens of the elite “Bush Pioneers” who two years ago raised much of his unprecedented $100 million election war chest. The “donor maintenance” barbecue, where those who had raised at least $100,000 apiece for the Bush-Cheney campaign were fêted, was a real meeting with a serious purpose. That was an event no TV cameras were permitted to record.