The political children of George Bush are many. One of them, positively identified by his opportunism, is Rep. Alfred McCandless, an obscure California Republican. After asking to have his picture taken with the president, he incorporated it into a campaign commercial saying he would stand up to Bush on raising taxes. Such cynicism! Bush's heart must have swelled.
The politics of the cheap shot are the president's own. The other day on the campaign trail, Bush said how good it was to be out of Washington -- "to be out where the real people are." The remark was like two fingers down the throat, a gag-inducer for even a political cynic. This from the man who has spent most of his life in Washington, seeking one appointive job after another.
The common indictment of Bush is that he is a politically hollow man. He is supposedly without ideology or commitment, willing to negotiate almost anything. I have no quarrel with that assessment, but I do have a quarrel with those who make it. Would they prefer an ideologue, either of the right or the left? The answer probably is no. Anyway, ideologues are getting hard to find. Who anymore is a pure liberal or a pure conservative? Only that band of frenzied tax-cutters around Newt Gingrich remains in the ideological Alamo. Shall we turn the government over to them?
My quarrel with Bush is different. It is that he practices an extremely cynical brand of politics. That's why his most memorable statements come back to haunt him. Here they are: "Voodoo economics" about an economic program he later adopted; "Write it down, put it down" -- about how his abortion position didn't differ at all from Ronald Reagan's when it did; "Read my lips" -- about how he would never raise taxes. One thing is now apparent: Bush never meant any of them.
We now know that about taxes. We sort of know it about abortion. We know it about supply-side economics, which Bush first condemned, then adopted and now has repudiated. We know it about flag burning -- remember flag burning?. What we know now -- what we sensed even then -- is that Bush lacks a governor on his political accelerator. For almost any statement, his foot is down to the floor. The sincere and the insincere, the momentous and the trivial, all are screeched at the same volume.
Think of other recent presidents. Only Richard Nixon (and, to an extent Lyndon Johnson) can be hoisted on the petard of their own statements. Nixon's "Your president is not a crook" is a classic, but Bush -- still in his presidential infancy -- has not done badly. In contrast, Dwight Eisenhower, to whom Bush is sometimes compared, left us with no statements with which to ridicule him. John Kennedy had his faults, but he's hard to mock with his own words. The same is true for Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter and -- maybe especially -- Ronald Reagan.
Bush's deepest failing as a politician is that he is no politician. He functions instead as a kind of traditional father, making decisions -- mostly in secret -- and then feeling almost no obligation to explain them. The decision to rescind the non-tax pledge was made just that way. Bush simply announced conditions had changed. What conditions? He wasn't saying. But you promised. Yes, children I did, but now I have changed my mind. Please eat your vegetables.
For Bush, this paternal approach to the presidency has been disastrous. He cannot continue to treat the voters as children, insisting (when it is to his benefit) that there is a Santa Claus of no new taxes and then suddenly saying there isn't. He cannot continue to treat politics as something distinct from governing -- saying one thing in Washington and something else on the campaign trail. He cannot continue to insult our intelligence by saying things we know are not true, or worse, that we know he does not believe.
The White House may well believe that the president is only in temporary difficulty. But Bush's plummeting ratings, his difficulty with Congress, his inability to control his own party -- these are all reflections of a deeply troubled presidency. After almost two years, a Bush constituency does not exist. He commands no loyalty. Unless he learns to be honest with the American people, he is almost certain to get into deeper and deeper trouble. The road to deep doo-doo is paved with little lies.