Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote recently in The Weekly Standard that the Democratic Party must find these days especially frustrating. All their charges and suspicions regarding the sinister motivations of the pro-business wing of the Republican Party are proving to be true. While they should be on the offensive, they appear merely to be confused. They have no candidate to run at President Bush -- who could be a sitting duck, especially as his own personal business dealings come to make him look and smell a whole lot like his dear friends.
But, says Brooks and others, the old class warfare rhetoric won't work, and, seemingly, the left can't come up with anything that does.
Alan Wolfe, in The New Republic, goes beyond Brooks into outright denunciation: "George W. Bush will be lucky if his presidency ever rises to the level of Taft's or Harding's'." Whereas Brooks sees similarities between the Bush and the Eisenhower administrations, Wolfe argues that any such comparisons are purely imaginary.
Ike had a mandate. Bush, who occupies the White House under an increasingly dark cloud, had none. But he didn't let that stop him from immediately moving to make his administration the "most pro-business... that the United States has ever endured," Wolfe writes.
Nor is Wolfe persuaded otherwise by reference to the famous and oft-quoted line uttered by GM President Charles Wilson to the effect that what's good for the country is good for General Motors, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country. GM, mutters Wolfe, was unionized, "so that what was good for it was also good for a huge number of American working class families." Moreover, he points out, GM actually made something of value and necessary to upward mobility: automobiles.
Bush, and his administration, charge Wolfe, are in bed with companies that "stand out for their rapaciousness in a generally vicious business climate." He then cites Enron's calculated destruction of its workers' retirement prospects at the same time it was gouging power users in California. They are sleazy businesses that don't contribute much, and certainly not businesses that support American workers while providing valuable products to the country.
In all this mess, two opportunities are now coming into focus. The first may fall to what Wolfe calls a "Roosevelt-style Republican," such as John McCain. The second will fall to a Democrat who can effectively address "and with considerable passion, the warping of priorities that occurs when government shifts so decisively in favor of the rich."
In the meantime, Bush, with the recession and the stock market collapse as backdrop, finds himself being viewed by more Americans as just another "bidness" wheeler and dealer who has become a coast-to-coast plague on IRA's. Because of who he is, he can't even go at the problem with purpose and energy. (The stock market seems to agree.)
Then, as a reaction to Bush's lack of leadership, and over his objections, the Senate voted up the first regulatory measure, 97-0. Nor does it appear that the president will seek the resignation of his very compromised SEC chairman, Harvey Pitt. Nor has he anything at all to say about the systemic problems. He does little more than take weak verbal swings at wrongdoers.
He fails even to educate the public regarding the likely unintended consequences of hasty regulatory legislation. As corporate executives run for cover, we may be looking at a period where profits are actually understated and the market artificially undervalued. Who would benefit from this kind of situation, other than a few political demagogues?
After Bush's first 18 months in office, a pattern has emerged. He sneers at issues until it's too late and he can't control them. Until 9/11 changed his world view, Bush actually sneered at "nation-building." The time he lost wallowing in his campaign rhetoric likely cost him the initiative in the Middle East. He also had to be dragged even to reconsider America's leadership role in global environmental issues. Now it's the economy, the issue that burned his father. A year ago, Enron was helping Dick Cheney write the nation's energy policy. Now Bush is going to clean up all the messes Enron and the rest have left us?
If the president is to save his (and our) day, he must rise above the partisan fray. (The buck stops with the president, no matter how much he wants to still blame Clinton.) He must perform the important presidential role of public education. (What's going on? What's the solution?) He must show decisiveness (dump Pitt). Most important, he must manage to inspire the public to believe that he is competent.
He can't show himself to be either a transparent manipulator like Nixon nor a "malaise in the land" man like Carter.
But George W. Bush?
Educating the public? Decisiveness? Inspiration?
With all the skeletons in his closet (and Cheney's), it's a long shot. If the Whitewater model is applied as thoroghly to Republicans as it was to Democrats, Bush may be ducking the Harken controversy -- invasion of Iraq or not -- until 2004. But for now, Bush is all we have, and we need him to get this mess figured out.
Looking down the road, though, if the real TR (or FDR, or JFK) is out there, will he please stand up?
Robert Herold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org