To those who insist they see no difference whether George W. Bush or Al Gore becomes the next President, recent headlines have offered a few more reasons to sober up.
The cliché that the malleable Mr. Bush will be guided by more sensible (or sentient) advisers, for example, is turning out to be yet another fashionable Washington stupidity. Thanks to such seasoned tutors as Condoleezza Rice, the former fraternity president has already disrupted American relationships with Russia and the European Union. (He didn’t invent that moronic proposal to pull American troops out of the Balkans all by himself, did he? That brilliant idea came from Ms. Rice, the Clarence Thomas of foreign policy, who was sent out to “clarify” the other day.)
Then there was Mr. Bush’s belated confession that he indeed plans to take one trillion-also expressed as $1,000,000,000,000-from the anticipated federal surplus to fund his Social Security privatization scheme. His math is always fuzzy, so don’t ask him to tell you how he will replace those 12 zeros when the time comes to send checks to the next wave of retirees. Lawrence Lindsey or some other rented Republican economist is working on that problem right now. The answer probably won’t be available until after the election (and be warned that you might not like it, since it will either mean raising taxes or cutting benefits).
The list of Dubya’s flubs, inanities and deceptions grows longer every day. The intellectual dishonesty of Republicans who claim to regard their nominee as an adequate national leader is a kind of scandal in itself.
How much damage can Mr. Bush really do by himself, anyway? As Texas governor, the man reportedly only works about half a day, and presumably that’s during the odd year when the legislature actually shows up in Austin. Which is an apt reminder of another problem portended by a Bush restoration-namely, the empowerment of two terrible Texans, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey.
Just as national Republican leaders picked dumb but charming Dubya as their most promising prospect to regain the White House, Messrs. DeLay and Armey selected the amiable but somewhat dim Dennis Hastert to front for them as Speaker after they defenestrated poor Newt Gingrich-whom they had never regarded as a “true conservative.” But it is that pair of villains who really run the Congress, and it is their ominous agenda that has been frustrated for the past few years by President Clinton. With him finally out of the way, the Republican House leadership must be anticipating a clear path for “true” conservatism in a Bush administration.
What would this trio from Texas do in power? Take every appalling proposal that is part of the Bush election platform, imagine the same thing but considerably worse, and that will serve as an approximation of what is to come. President Dubya will be required to negotiate budgets and legislation with the Congressional chieftains. Assuming that Messrs. DeLay and Armey remain the bosses of the Hill after Election Day, the Bush agenda will be pushed even further to the right.
In short, expect compassionate conservatism minus the compassion. A tax cut that goes mostly to the wealthiest of the wealthy? Yes, although without any of the paltry few bucks Mr. Bush has promised to the working poor and middle class. A “reform” of Medicare that consigns more elderly people to the untender mercies of “health maintenance organizations”? Absolutely-but please don’t bring up the patients’ bill of rights or prescription-drug coverage again. A plan to privatize Social Security and turn the surplus over to Wall Street hustlers? Sure. Just forget that impossible pledge to preserve benefits for everyone. And what of Mr. Bush’s $5 billion literacy program and all his rhetoric about leaving no child behind? Don’t be ridiculous.
Of course, the ambitions of a Bush-DeLay-Armey regime would range far beyond the constraints of this year’s debates. Opening the Alaskan wilderness to the oil industry, as Mr. Bush says he will do, merely symbolizes what he and his Congressional comrades could perpetrate over the next four years. The actual abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency may be beyond their reach. But they will most assuredly gut the E.P.A., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and every other agency that defends consumers, workers and wildlife from corporate destruction.
Social policy will be remade by such zealots as Marvin Olasky, the wacky ex-Communist guru of the religious right. Gun controls will be dismantled according to the dictates of Charlton Heston, a dangerous nutcase who hinted the other day that the Vice President deserves a “lynching.”
At a New York fund-raiser for Ralph Nader, a well-meaning movie star remarked fatuously that “We survived Nixon and we’ll survive Bush.” Unfortunately, it isn’t the survival of millionaire populists that’s at stake in this election.