Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Dionne on Phony Populism

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post pens a good op-ed for today on the phony populism of the Bush administration. As Dionne himself points out, none of what he's writing about is groundbreaking - he's just covering the same old BS and noting the current flavor (although it's a flavor well loved by Bush throughout his political career). But it's a nice snapshot, capturing one of Bush's classic straw man arguments as well as one of Cheney's classic misdirection tactics. Like many of the best op-eds, this latest piece from Dionne also provides a nice analysis of the truth behind a politician's claims, in this case skewering Bush's shilling about the benefits of Health Savings Accounts for average Americans.

Dionne last year penned a good op-ed on William F. Buckley, Jr. and how he helped cultivate the "liberals are elitists" meme. Some liberal bloggers gave Dionne flack for it, but as I've written before, I've also found some admirable aspects to Buckley as well. (Several blogs, however, posted some of the racist articles from The National Review in the 50s, none of which I had seen before. The pieces were disturbing, and remind me I need to re-evaluate my opinion of Buckley... Meanwhile, the magazine as it currently stands features mostly predicatable, apologist rhetoric.)

But even if Buckley championed a sort of faux populism, Goldwater advanced it, and Reagan might have perfected it, surely Bush and Rove have added a major chapter to the playbook. Ann Richards updated an old quip to observe that George W. Bush "was born on third base, thinking he'd hit a triple." It really is rather extraordinary that the Bushies managed to tag Kerry with a silver spoon while Bush is the son of a former President of the United States, among other things! Back in 2004, I heard a few people express reservations about Kerry being essentially a blueblood, but when Bush's family was pointed out, their reaction was "oh, yeah." Still, the basic feeling seemed to be, Bush was a former screw-up, and a good ol' boy, or at worst, a dumbass, so he really wasn't part of that hoighty-toighty world of his dad and all that... And the fact that he went to Andover, Yale, and Harvard has never stopped Bush from degrading northeastern "liberal" eductional institutions.

But this is the reason he should govern? A revealing 2004 poll showed Bush over Kerry in terms of "who you'd rather have a beer with," but the the bigger question this raises is, how important is it to you that The President of the United States (despite in Bush's case being a teetotaller) be a good drinking buddy to you? Yes, I'd like to like my president, yes, I'd like to think he cares about someone like me, but more than anything else, I want him (or her) to do the job well! Kerry was not an overwhelming candidate, and most people choose their politicians on a gut feeling or a general read (or a specific issue) versus careful analysis. Still, I've never quite bought the whole argument that the president needs to be a "man of the people"... Sure, he should be personable and have "the common touch," but does that mean he must also have only an average intellect, or average competence? Doesn't what's inarguably one of the toughest, most important jobs in the world call for a man or woman of extraordinary ability and strengths? Bush's backers feel that he has great instincts, and an unique and potent managerial style. Okay. I would strongly disagree. However, at the very least the man needs good "Vulcans" about him then, men and women smarter than he who will serve as honest brokers. And the administration as a whole must function well and make good aggregate decisions.

Americans distrust elites, a friend of mine reminds me. However, the central political con job of the past forty years is that being part of an intellectual "elite" is dangerous, while being entrenched in a good ol' boy socially elite network is not. Thus may class warfare by the ruling class be practiced in the name of populism.

And so many major questions remain. For the Bush administration - to what degree will ideology trump empiricism and practicality? When does one stop campaigning and instead govern? When will the main focus be not spin or public relations but actual job competency?

For the American people - to what degree should social issues trump economic self-interest and the public interest? For the conservatives - how long will you accept leadership that does not actually follow conservative values? And, more to the point, to what degree will the American people accept whatever the hell a politican says, despite all evidence to the contrary?

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