No End to the Phony Populism

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, February 17, 2006

Many people turn away from politics because so many of the players evade difficult questions by attacking their critics and changing the subject. Phony populism is the technique of choice, and it is much favored by the current administration.

On the same day this week, Americans were offered two examples of the politics of aggression and evasion. In both instances, politicians sought to duck hard issues by inventing an elitist enemy. In both, they ascribed to their adversaries views their critics don't hold, and never did.

Take, first, the case that received little attention. Campaigning at the Ohio headquarters of the Wendy's fast-food chain for his proposal to expand health savings accounts, President Bush dismissed critics who contend that the accounts "are not a solution for the uninsured, they're regressive, they favor the wealthy."

That was an accurate enough description of the opponents' criticisms, but then came this zinger: "It's kind of basically saying, if you're not making a lot of money you can't make decisions for yourself. That's kind of a Washington attitude, isn't it -- we'll decide for you, you can't figure it out yourself. I think a lot of folks here at Wendy's would argue that point of view is just simply backwards and not true."

But opponents of Bush's plan are not "kind of basically saying" anything of the sort. They want people "not making a lot of money" to have a chance to buy affordable health insurance. They are arguing that HSAs, as the accounts are known, would offer a lot of money to the most well-off among our fellow citizens without increasing health coverage. Indeed, there is good evidence, mustered this week by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that HSAs would instead lead to a net increase in the number of uninsured.

And, as Elisabeth Bumiller pointed out in the New York Times, a $5,000 contribution to an HSA would have saved a couple with two children and a combined income of $40,000 just $630 on their 2005 federal income taxes. (And that assumes the couple could have afforded to put away the whole five grand, which is unlikely.) But a comparable couple with an income of $120,000 would have saved $1,500.

In other words, HSAs give the smallest benefits to those least able to afford health insurance. That is not exactly showing respect for those who are "not making a lot of money." The elitism here lies with those making the proposal, not with its critics.

The same phony populism was on display during Dick Cheney's more widely noted interview the same day on Republican State Television -- excuse me, Fox News -- in which the vice president tried to dismiss questions as to why he waited so long to tell the world he had shot Harry Whittington.

Let's let others argue about Cheney's claim that he was waiting only so he could put out an accurate story, and move directly to his efforts to change the subject.

"I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them -- they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of the New York Times," Cheney said. "But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as the New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas."

Now there's populist jujitsu for you. Absolutely no one is saying that Cheney should have leaked to the New York Times. The question is why he didn't make the story public, early on, for everybody, at the same time.

Cheney wanted one of his "good friends," Republican loyalist Katharine Armstrong, to tip off "reporters she knew" so she could put the story in, well, perspective. Armstrong helpfully explained to the Texas paper that getting shot is "a risk when any shooting sport is involved" and that in this instance, "Everybody behaved exactly as you would want them to."

By the way, the two Corpus Christi reporters who covered this, Kathryn Garcia and Jaime Powell, were not diverted from one of the central mysteries of the case: In their original story, they reported that the tip to their paper came "18 hours after the incident occurred."

So thank goodness there are limits to spin, but up to now, there have been no limits on the administration's willingness to divert attention from its problems through attacks on elitist straw men. The flaws in Bush's policy arguments will rarely make big news. But perhaps the reaction to an unfortunate event in south Texas's wide open spaces will help bring an end to phony populism by exposing it for what it is.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company