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March 7, 2004 - The Most Influential Item Published This Week

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The Most Influential Item Published This Week?


What might that be?  What is being linked everywhere (even by the conservative but gay Andrew Sullivan) and quoted everywhere?  Who gets the big prize for actually managing to nail the proverbial mashed potatoes to the wall?

It’s William Saletan. 

See Confidence Man: The case for Bush is the case against him.
William Saletan, SLATE.COM, Posted Thursday, March 4, 2004, at 4:24 PM PT

I recommend reading the whole thing by clicking on the link – but here’s the core. 

After a long discussion of how Bush will run as “steady and principled” and try to portray Kerry as “wavering” and ever changing and thus dangerous, Saletan offers this advice:


How can Kerry persuade moderates to throw out Bush?  By turning the president's message against him.  Bush is steady and principled.  He believes money is better spent by individuals than by the government. 

He believes the United States should assert its strength in the world.  He believes public policy should respect religious faith.  Most Americans share these principles and think Bush is sincere about them.  The problem Bush has demonstrated in office is that he has no idea how to apply his principles in a changing world.  He's a big-picture guy who can't do the job.


The idea is to show what “steady and principled” really means. 


From foreign to economic to social policy, Bush's record is a lesson in the limits and perils of conviction.  He's too confident to consult a map.  He's too strong to heed warnings and too steady to turn the wheel when the road bends.  He's too certain to admit error, even after plowing through ditches and telephone poles.  He's too preoccupied with principle to understand that principle isn't enough.  Watching the stars instead of the road, he has wrecked the budget and the war on terror.  Now he's heading for the Constitution.  It's time to pull him over and take away the keys.


Then, of course, you give Bush credit! 


Bush was right to go to war against the terrorists who struck us on 9/11.  He was right to demand the overdue use of force against the scofflaw Iraqi regime.  But he couldn't tell the difference between the two threats.  He figured that since both Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were evil, they had to be connected.  Saddam must have helped orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.  He must have built weapons of mass destruction to sell to al-Qaida. 


Well, he had the GENERAL idea.  Not subtle, but we bought it. 

And it was really not based on any facts – but no problem, right? 


In recent months, congressional hearings and document leaks have unearthed a disturbing history.  Again and again in 2001 and 2002, U.S.  intelligence agencies sent signals that Bush was wrong.  The FBI and CIA debunked putative links between Iraq and al-Qaida.  The CIA rejected the claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Africa.  In its National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA calculated that it could take Saddam up to five years to make a nuclear weapon and that he would transfer WMD to terrorists only if he were invaded.  The Defense Intelligence Agency advised the administration that there was "no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons." The Air Force disputed the suggestion that Iraq had developed aerial drones capable of delivering chemical or biological toxins.  Analysts questioned whether the White House was right that Saddam's aluminum tubes were designed for building nukes, or that two trucks the White House found suspicious were designed for making biological weapons. 

Bush ignored every one of these warnings.  They couldn't be true, because they didn't fit his theory.  He couldn't stand the complexity of the facts or the ambiguity of intelligence.  "Until we get rid of Saddam Hussein, we won't get rid of uncertainty," he told aides in November 2002.  Four months later, on the eve of his invasion of Iraq, he declared, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." After the war, when Diane Sawyer asked Bush about the discrepancy between his ironclad statements and the more tentative weapons estimates provided by U.S.  intelligence, he replied, "What's the difference?"


Well, perhaps most people feel exactly the same way. 

The problem is some people, maybe more than you would expect, don’t feel the same way. 

Here’s the deal.  We all needed certainty.  And that’s what Bush provided, in spades.  And may get him reelected. 

This all comes down to whether one values certainty above all else. 


That's Bush all over: Certainty.  No doubt.  No difference.  But it makes a difference to Britain, France, and Mexico, which no longer trust our requests, based on U.S.  intelligence, to cancel flights to the United States.  And it makes a difference to China, which refuses to accept our report, based on U.S.  intelligence, that North Korea is operating a highly enriched uranium program.  Bush's overconfidence - reflected in a series of exaggerations wholly unnecessary to the punishment of Saddam for his noncompliance with U.N.  inspections - has trashed our credibility and cost us vital help with other terrorist and WMD-related threats.


Yeah, well, who needs these other folks?  When you’re certain you are just, well, by definition, right. 

The Saletan extend the argument to other areas:


Bush was right to propose tax cuts in 1999.  The economy was booming.  The surplus was ballooning.  Liberals were itching to spend the money on new programs, despite Bill Clinton's promises to pay down the national debt.  Bush wanted to get the money out of Washington before that happened.  That's why, under his plan, the size of the tax cut was to grow from year to year.  The point was to keep the surplus from piling up, refunding more and more money as it poured in from a growing economy.  That's also why Bush cut taxes across the board instead of targeting middle-class families who would spend the money immediately.  He wasn't trying to stimulate the economy.  He was trying to give the money back to the people who had paid it in, which meant largely the rich. 

Then everything changed.  The stock market tanked, and the economy slowed.  Sept.  11 shook the nation's confidence and drastically altered military budget projections.  Bush didn't need to drain a surplus anymore.  He needed to fund national defense and stimulate the economy.  He needed to get rid of his back-loaded across-the-board tax cut and replace it … with front-loaded tax cuts aimed at consumers.  Instead, Bush claimed that his original tax-cut elixir was just as good for the new malady as for the old one.  The deficit exploded, the economy failed to recover the jobs it had lost, and much of the country remained unprotected from terrorism.  The world changed, but Bush couldn't.


Ah yes, but he WAS certain and stuck to his principles. 

Then there are some other matters:


When Bush banned federal funding of research on new embryonic stem cell lines, he said sufficient research could proceed because "more than 60" existing cell lines would still be eligible for grants.  The true number turned out to be less than half that, but Bush didn't budge.  Last fall, in the name of human life, he signed into law a bill that required any doctor performing a second-trimester abortion to cut up the fetus inside the woman instead of removing it intact.  Good principle, atrocious policy.  His initiative to fund faith-based social programs has been a classic liberal misadventure, adding religious mini-bureaucracies to various Cabinet departments despite a study last year that showed faith-based job training programs were no more effective, and in some ways less effective, than regular job training programs. 

Now, to save the family, Bush proposes to monkey with the Constitution.  Why is this necessary?  Because conservative states might be forced to honor gay marriages performed in liberal states, says Bush.  But didn't the Defense of Marriage Act void that requirement?  Yes, Bush argues, but DOMA might be struck down.  Unwilling to wait for a ruling on DOMA, Bush prefers to circumvent the court system and local democracy by reopening the nation's founding document.  He seeks to impose a permanent federal definition of marriage on "any state or city," regardless of what the voters in Boston or San Francisco want.


As I have said elsewhere, this forms a symbiotic “call and response” liturgy with the American people. 

It’s like this.  Thousands die two and a half years ago - and most Americans suddenly realize that the world is indeed a dark and scary place, full of mortal uncertainty.  Of what now can we be certain?  Oh woe, the world is a chaotic place -

“… for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

”Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

See The Bumper Sticker Version Of Existentialism from February 6, 2004 for a discussion of Matthew Arnold’s poem and all the rest. 

Anyway, we were desperate for strength and confidence, and certainty.  We needed that.  George jumped in and started chanting back to us.  He was sure.  Evil was evil and one just had to say so.  We were good.  They were bad – whoever thay were.  As simple as that.  

Was he wrong about things?  No matter.  He was confident.  What a relief! 

We all signed on and worshiped him. 

Not Saletan. 


President Bush.  Strength and confidence.  Steady leadership in times of change.  He knows exactly where he wants to lead this country.  And he won't let facts, circumstances, or the Constitution get in his way.


But we’re scared, still, and we know we’re innocent victims who never did anything bad to anyone anywhere else in the world, and thus we will reelect [sic] him.  We need the comfort. 

He may be a fool, and dead wrong, but he’s certain of himself.  That’s his trump card.  He knows our need for strength, for certainty, far outweighs our need for common sense. 

And that’s the price of assuming the role of frightened, innocent victim.  We get four more years of this foolishness, but can feel noble and wronged. 

Stay sacred – and feel noble and wronged - and this is what you get.  You get what you deserve. 


The emphases are mine throughout.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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