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He can't help it

By John Burke
web posted April 8, 2002

Remember the parable of The Scorpion and The Frog? It's the story of the venomous and inveterately aggressive arachnid who asked the cautious and appropriately skeptical amphibian to give him a ride across a river.

"But what if you sting me?" asked The Frog.

"Why would I want to do that? Since I cannot swim, then we would both die," replied The Scorpion.

Reassured by The Scorpion's logic, The Frog agreed to give him a ride. But at mid-passage across the river, The Frog felt the deadly sting of The Scorpion's tail.

Before succumbing, The Frog asked, "Why did you sting me?"

The Scorpion replied "Ahh, because it's my nature. I am, after all, a scorpion."

Many conservatives and libertarians may empathize with The Frog, as they too are feeling the sting of several policy decisions made by President George W. Bush, all antagonistic to their core convictions.

George W. BushIn the hope of shoring up his political support in steel-producing states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, President Bush has imposed steel import tariffs. While saving few jobs, these duties will raise prices of steel-intensive products used by all Americans. Encouraging retaliatory actions by foreign governments, the tariff also threatens to provoke an economically destructive trade war. Bush's free-trade supporters are predictably alienated.

For fear of being perceived as a shill for special interests, and in the hope of stealing the thunder of his political nemesis John McCain, Bush has reversed his earlier opposition to campaign finance reform, and quietly signed the McCain-Feingold Bill. This in spite of the bill's -- now the law's -- pernicious, and surely unconstitutional, restrictions on both freedom of speech and political competition

Eager to be seen "doing something" about a dysfunctional public school system, Dubya sought the dubious backing of Senator Kennedy for his education bill. The resulting compromise sacrificed The President's already tepid commitment to educational choice in exchange for legislation that spends still more federal funds with only an uncertain promise that "standards of accountability" will, somehow, bring about better student attainments.

To all these recent breaches of faith must be added last year's tax package. Seemingly designed only to allow the President to lay claim to having "cut taxes", the resulting abatements were trifling in their size, tardy in their enactment, anemic in their economic effect, and, since they are only scheduled to last until the end of 2010, ephemeral besides. The Bush tax cut is seen by many conservatives and libertarians as a disappointment, if not a travesty.

You may wonder: why the President would betray the principles he professes to uphold, and, as a result, alienating a loyal base of support he surely does need?

No need to wonder. The President can't help himself. It's his nature. He is, after all, a Bush.

His father, the former President George H.W. Bush, engaged in similar accommodations. There were his expansions in funding for many domestic programs, such as Head Start. There were his endorsements for meddlesome regulatory initiatives such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. All this allowed The Elder Bush to take a philanthropic pose, while doing little besides increasing litigation, bureaucratic intrusiveness, and federal spending. The resulting fiscal strains combined with a recession and the war in the Persian Gulf to encourage the former President in his most infamous betrayal of all: The breach of his "no new taxes" pledge. This alienated him from his conservative base, and, more than anything else, helped make him the failed, one-term president he soon became.

But no matter. For it was in The Elder Bush's nature to regard principles of minimalist government with embarrassment. After all, ideological fealty interfered with what his New England patrician upbringing told him was a more noble purpose he was obliged to pursue: Cooperation with his politically more-aggressive opponents, and their compassionate-sounding agendas. His privileged birth made him too guilt-ridden, and too conflict-adverse, to do otherwise.

The father seems to have raised his son, Dubya, to be similarly dismissive of limited government precepts whenever these might obstruct what-he-takes-to-be pragmatism. For the Younger Bush and his team of political manipulators, pragmatism seems to be defined by this strategy: (1) Hold onto the War On Terrorism-induced near-universal popularity Dubya enjoys by supporting positions which, though substantively flawed, are superficially appealing to the broader, ideologically indifferent, public; (2) Coerce those more politically-principled supporters alienated by such adulterated expediencies with this threat: If you are foolish enough to oppose this popular President, you will risk either (a) embarrassing yourselves if you fail to unseat him, or, (b) electing as President a Democrat even worse than he, should you, perchance, succeed in deposing him.

In all this, The Younger Bush gambles that ideas have no consequences: That by compromising or abandoning minimalist political doctrines, he will do no discernable harm to either the nation, or to himself. The President wagers his tariff will let him take the credit for saving steel worker's jobs, while escaping the blame for its inevitably upward pressure on steel prices, as well as the possible trade war it might provoke. By not vetoing McCain-Feingold, Bush hopes to be seen as as a courageous champion of the public interest, while avoiding being recognized as a political opportunist faithful neither to his own past position on campaign finance reform nor to the Constitution he has sworn to preserve, protect and defend. By abandoning school choice in return for Ted Kennedy's endorsement of his education bill, Dubya hopes to be praised for addressing the problems of the public schools, while evading condemnation for his failure to insist upon what is necessary to actually solve these problems. By sponsoring a tax reduction so small, gradual, and temporary that it functions more as a political token than as serious fiscal policy, the President makes a bid at winning a reputation as a tax-cutter -- a very stingy bid.

In making this wager that principles don't really matter in politics, Bush the Younger also ignores the experience of his father. By endorsing heedless spending and regulation, and then reneging on his promise not to raise taxes in an attempt to bring down the deficit, Bush the Elder became politically-blameworthy not only for economic under-performance but also for political duplicity. The broad, but shallow, political support he gained as a result of successful prosecution of the Gulf War rapidly eroded. Unbuoyed by his conservative and libertarian political base made skeptical of the worth of his words, The Elder Bush's re-election drowned in humiliating defeat.

By emulating his father's heedless abandonment of the precepts of limited government while disregarding its disastrous outcome, The Younger Bush seeks to be pragmatic, but risks failure instead. By disregarding the simple truth that ideas indeed have consequences, Dubya may well confront another truth: Abandoning ideas whose faithful application will likely have successful consequences merely for the sake of trying to be popular is apt to result in failure, and failure is never popular.

But no matter. The President can't help himself. Unprincipled accommodation is his nature. He is, after all, a Bush.

This is John Burke's second contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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