Bush the Egghead

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, April 29, 2005

President Bush's critics have him all wrong. They think of him as an anti-intellectual, opposed to theory and disdainful of grand ideas.

To the contrary. George W. Bush's spring of discontent arises from a fact that no one dares to notice: George W. Bush is an egghead.

I doubt this is a thought that comes to most people at the end of a Bush news conference. Indeed, to praise or criticize Bush for eggheadism risks disdain from left and right.

Many liberals have long worn the "egghead" epithet as a badge of honorable intellectualism. They would never want to share it with Bush. Older liberals still treasure the late Adlai Stevenson, the original egghead and the failed Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson was probably less of an intellectual than people thought, but the image stuck.

The notion of Bush as an egghead no doubt appalls conservatives, too. People on the right have long savored attacking their opponents as "pointy-headed intellectuals" -- the late George Wallace's phrase was widely popular. Spiro T. Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president, had perfect right-wing pitch when he assailed his boss's opponents as an "effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." That dismissive phrase -- "who characterize themselves as intellectuals" -- was nothing short of brilliant.

But with apologies to both sides, the case for Bush as an egghead is overwhelming. One of the central characteristics of the Bush presidency is a profound commitment to theoretical notions, nurtured in think tanks and ideological magazines, and a relentless -- yes, even principled -- commitment to pushing them regardless of the facts or the consequences.

The president's proposal for private accounts in Social Security is Exhibit A for eggheadism. There was little popular demand for these accounts. Most Americans like Social Security as it is. The private accounts idea was nurtured primarily in libertarian and conservative research organizations such as the Cato Institute, the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Heritage Foundation.

To build support for privatization, backers of the idea could not rely on their popularity, and they even had to abandon their treasured word "privatization." Instead, they spent years trying to convince Americans that Social Security faced some sort of "crisis" and that "personal" accounts were the answer.

The problem is that such accounts do nothing by themselves to solve Social Security's financing difficulties -- a point that Bush eventually had to concede.

Unlike conservative intellectuals, most Americans have a very practical view of Social Security. They want some insurance against the risks of old age and do not judge Social Security proposals by their theoretical elegance. Most citizens want to know how much money they will have in their pockets when they're 65, 70 or 80. Because Bush spent the past four months pushing a bold idea rather than a specific plan, Americans have been unable to find an answer to this cash-on-the-barrelhead concern. No wonder Bush offered a few more details last night.

So it is with Bush's foreign policy. It is now clear that he always had a grand notion of what the invasion of Iraq would achieve, even if he honestly believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He also knew that most Americans would not buy a war in the name of some large theory -- for example, that a new Iraq would achieve a breakthrough for democracy throughout the Middle East. So the weapons threat, a very practical danger, became the primary rationale for war.

Now that Americans know the weapons were not there, support for the war has waned. Yes, most Americans would like Bush's grand democratic construct to be true. The Iraqi elections, a concrete sign of progress, temporarily increased support for the invasion. But new attacks in Iraq have led to a drop in support for the war. Again, Americans are, on the whole, pragmatists and not eggheads.

In so many other areas, Bush has allowed theory to triumph over practice. The boring, old-fashioned view is that if you cut taxes and increase spending, you get deficits. No, no, the president and the supply-side true believers say; eventually those tax cuts will produce robust economic growth and wipe the deficits away. You just have to keep faith with the theory.

Adlai Stevenson once said: "Eggheads of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your yolks." Easy for him to say. He never got to the White House. But you wonder at what point our idealistic, idea-driven president will revisit that old-fashioned brand of conservatism that sees experience and practicality as preferable to theory.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company