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In Praise of Bush's Honesty (Honest)

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By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Q: Is the poll troubling?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Polls? You know, if a president tries to govern based upon polls, you're kind of like a dog chasing your tail. I don't think you can make good, sound decisions based upon polls. And I don't think the American people want a president who relies upon polls and focus groups to make decisions for the American people.

-- from the April 28 news conference.

The comic high point of the president's prime-time news conference was this muddled disquisition on how the American people don't want the president to do what polls say the American people want the president to do.

This could be simple nonsense -- an unfortunate conflation of two rhetorical devices treasured by politicians of both parties but best kept a few paragraphs apart. One is the insistence that they don't follow the polls. The other is substituting the phrase "the American people" for the word "I" in sentences like, "The American people demand immediate passage of H.R. 5712, the Grotesque Subsidies to Widget Producers Act."

Or the president could be struggling toward some kind of Burkean notion that he has been elected to lead people, not to follow their whims, and leadership matters only when it takes people where they don't want to go. Bush hinted at this after his reelection, saying that he had "chips" (of popularity) that he was prepared to cash in. And I'm giving him credit for this high-minded explanation based on the rest of his performance Thursday evening.

There was a remarkable amount of honesty and near-honesty. Bush's rebuff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was superb. The people who oppose his judgeship nominees aren't prejudiced against religion, he said. They do it because they have a different "judicial philosophy." That is exactly the point. His characterization of the difference -- his opponents "would like to see judges legislate from the bench" -- is not quite right. Just a couple of weeks ago, his party tried desperately to force judges to "legislate from the bench" to prevent the removal of life support from Terri Schiavo. But a straightforward debate about judicial philosophy is indeed what we need.

Then it got even better. Starting with the cliche that in America you can "worship any way you want," Bush plunged gratuitously into a declaration that "if you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship." How long has it been, in this preacher-spooked nation, since a politician, let alone the president, has spoken out in defense of non-believers?

Above all, Bush was honest and even courageous about Social Security. Social Security is entirely about writing checks: Money goes in, money goes out. As Bush has discovered in the past few months, there are no shadows to hide in while you fiddle with it. The problem is fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees, and there are only two possible solutions: Someone has to pay more in, and/or someone has to take less out.

Bush didn't go from explicitly denying this to explicitly admitting it. But he went from implicitly suggesting that his privatization scheme is a pain-free solution to implicitly endorsing a plan for serious benefit cuts. For a politician, that's an admirable difference.

Even more to Bush's credit, the plan he's backing is highly progressive. Benefits for low-income workers would keep rising with average wages, as now, but benefits for middle- and high-income people would be geared more toward merely keeping up with inflation. This allows Bush to say that no one's benefits will be cut, although some people will be getting as much as 40 percent less than they are currently promised. But in the swamp of Social Security politics, that is really minimal protection from the alligators.


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