Tuesday, April 3, 2001
A series of tone-deaf environmental and budget decisions is getting the new administration off to an ominous start.
Even where we find ourselves now — on the far side of the Bridge to the Twenty-first Century, in a post-millennial America so long at peace abroad that it has entered into a chronic state of warfare with itself at home, just to have something to do with its nastiness — even here, there are rules of decorum. And there are laws of political physics.
There are things you can and cannot do. George W. Bush and his friends don't seem to know this. I'm afraid they are going to find it out the hard way, in November 2002.
That's a guess. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe the Bush conservatives will get the working majorities they need and will, after 2002, ride from triumph to triumph in chariots of fire, rescinding Clinton and completing Reagan and building a New Jerusalem.
But the Gingrich Republicans overinterpreted their mandate of 1994, and look at the ditch they landed in. The George W. Bush Republicans have no mandate to overinterpret. They are proceeding now by the metaphysics of Wile E. Coyote, who ventures bravely into midair, until he notices that he is standing on thin air above the deep canyon, into which, presently, he begins a long, whistling plummet that ends in a distant "poof!" on the canyon floor.
I do not say that Bush is entirely wrong in the positions he has staked out. Nothing, in any case, is more satisfying to behold than the indignation of the Streisand Left when it has been given the finger. But it's not enough to be right, or to think you're right; Bush could be right about everything (he's not), and still fail.
America is not divided in two. It is divided in three : a third (liberal), a third (middle) and a third (conservative).
Bush is losing his touch with the middling third. The left third and the right third operate from principle, and are stable in their allegiances. The middle third may change loyalties, blown this way or that by sometimes fatuous notions of decorum. If Bush continues to offend the middle's sense of the American story, he is headed for disaster in less than 18 months.
Decorum about what? The environment, above all. Bush is repeating the Clinton administration's early errors of symbolism and priority. As Clinton stupidly allowed gays in the military to become an opening issue of his administration, so Bush has given early prominence to carbon dioxide emissions, arsenic in the water, rejection of the Kyoto treaty, and oil drilling in Arctic Alaska. Dumb.
A successful president needs timing and an instinct for the emotional chemistry of issues. The middle third care about environment, more than ever. In just 10 weeks, the Bush environmental dossier has gotten to be a toxic political accumulation. I'm not talking about the merits of individual policies. I'm talking about the moral impressions on which Americans will cast their votes next time. A presidency develops like a Polaroid picture. The emerging picture of the Bush administration is ugly.
The middle third respond to issues of economic unfairness. They may reject leftist class-warfare rhetoric, but they get a scrupulous twitch when people with plenty of money seem to be having too much of a party while the markets dive, and too many others seem to be sleeping under bridges. Bush's tax cut and his banker-friendly plan to make bankruptcy tougher may lead the middle third to think they are watching a Charlie Chaplin movie.
There is a rock of ideology in the snowball of George W. Bush's frolicksome charm. Fine. He's a conservative. But in this country, now, conservatism without discretion is mere doctrine, and principles without brains or strategy are indistinguishable from stupidity : dead weight.
If George W. Bush begins to suffer an ignominious nightly death-by-Leno — the vast middle third of America tucked in bed and laughing derisively at the Homer Simpson in the White House — then Bush is gone.
He's in greater danger than he thinks.