When I am driving, I am the bane of pedestrians, pushing them out of the way as I turn corners, enforcing the divine right of motorists. When I am a pedestrian, on the other hand, I all but dare cars to hit me and have even been known to jaywalk. In other words, on the streets, I'm what President Bush has been in politics: a flaming hypocrite.
Having been a reckless motorist during the last presidential campaign, Bush has now dismounted and pleads for, of all things, consideration, solicitude and, of course, pure reason. He implores opponents of the deficit-reduction package to pass up the cheap shot, and he asks voters to remember all they learned in civics class: Sometimes, in the course of human events, taxes have to be raised.
Yea -- verily -- yea, 'tis the truth. But is this the same Bush who cuffed around Michael Dukakis? Is this the very man who skewered his Democratic opponent on a no-taxes pledge, shishkababbing the Duke as he sought those few states where liberalism, higher taxes and reckless prison furloughs were welcome? Yes, we're talking about the same person.
I for one am pleased as punch to see the New Bush. But in truth I'm not sure if he's the New Bush or just the Latest Bush. Something about Bush suggests the difference between tactics and strategy. The new tactics -- the short-run expedient -- may be his pose as the responsible politician: the one who does what's best for the country no matter what the political risks. This is the Bush who in his television address the other night pleaded for some understanding for those in Congress who will vote to, er, raise taxes. "I ask you to understand how important and, for some, how difficult this vote is... . Many worry about your reaction."
And well they should. For the voters have been told, first by Ronald Reagan and then by Bush himself, that taxes did not have to be raised and that the budget deficit was nothing to worry about. If zealous and rabid Gingriches now fan out into the country to steal reason from the people and reinforce that message, who can we blame if they are believed? The list of suspects is a short one, and Bush himself is high on it. For years, he pounded politicians, usually Democrats, who called for a tax increase.
Some of those Democrats, in fact, used language pretty close to the language Bush used the other night. It was Walter Mondale who first uttered a warning that Bush put this way: the deficit "mortgages the future of our children." During the 1984 campaign, Mondale talked about our grandchildren. But who can blame Bush for changing the language? In a decade, the crisis has worsened by a generation.
In recent times, a gentler and kinder George Bush has acknowledged that the past is prologue. He's almost conceded that his policy toward Iraq before Iraq invaded Kuwait left something to be desired, and he's more than intimated some second thoughts about Reagan administration fiscal policy. His use of the phrase "for too long" in his televised speech to the nation is confession of sorts that the budget deficit is partly his own doing.
The grand rebuttal to my complaint is that Bush practiced nothing more -- and nothing less -- than politics. If he campaigned against higher taxes, he did so because that's what was needed to win. True enough. But this ethic, when carried to such an extreme, is probably the chief cause of voter cynicism. When people sense that politicians really stand for nothing aside from winning, they are entitled to become cynical.