Fleischer Watch, Part 2.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 17 2005 12:20 PM

Fleischer Watch, Part 2

Ari wanders off-message.

On March 15, I observed that in his new book, Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House, Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, scorned reporters for (among other sins) harboring a "'belief that government is a mechanism to solve the nation's problems." (The words aren't Fleischer's, but rather are quoted with approval from ABC's Web log, "The Note.") * As I noted then, it is impossible to conceive of any role for government that doesn't involve solving some problems. A few libertarians wrote in to chide me and to say the only legitimate role for government was to provide a common defense, or to keep citizens from murdering one another, or some other bare-bones function. But what is the need to defend or police a society but a problem, for which government is the best, albeit imperfect, solution? I'll repeat what I wrote two days ago: "We can argue about the particular problems government should solve, and about how successfully government addresses them at any given time, but not, I think, about whether government should be in the problem-solving business." If you still can't follow this, see me after class.

One person who grasps the concept that government should solve problems is Fleischer's former boss. On March 16, President Bush said, at a press conference, "I like to get out of Washington, I like to discuss big issues, I like to remind people that my job is to confront problems. … " This is, in fact, a line Bush uses incessantly when discussing his plan to privatize Social Security. (Let's set aside the complication that Bush's Social Security plan would confront the program's long-term insolvency by making the program less solvent, not more.) In a March 9 speech in Ohio, Bush said, "I have put the issue on the table because I believe the president must confront problems."At a March 10 forum in Alabama, Bush said, "I believe the job of a president is to confront problems and not pass them on to future generations and future presidents." And so on. Bush has even been known to speak of government solving problems. Here he is speaking on Jan. 28 to members of Congress at the Greenbrier (a relatively problem-free resort in West Virginia):

[P]eople—people ought to view this team we've put together, the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch, as people who are—come to Washington, D.C., to solve problems. And we have done so over the last four years, and we will continue to do so for the next four years.

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But wait, you say. The "problem" Bush wants to solve with respect to Social Security is the government's intrusion into our lives, a problem that government would "solve" by reducing that intrusion through the establishment of private (albeit heavily regulated) pension accounts. All right then, how about Bush's prepared statement on July 25, 2002, that passage of a (mildly pro-regulatory) accounting reform bill was an example of "what can happen when leaders work together to solve problems"? What about his assertion, with regard to his "No Child Left Behind" bill, that "I went to Washington to solve problems"? (This was in the third presidential debate of 2004.) Liberals should thank Bush for extending, albeit through flawed legislation, the long-overdue regulation of primary and secondary education by the federal government, something Republicans would have certainly blocked had it been proposed by a Democratic president.

Fleischer's professed distaste for those who would use government to solve problems never kept him from speaking that way himself while he was Bush's press secretary. In press briefing on May 17, 2001, Fleischer said,

To solve the energy problem, it requires a president who will lead the nation, who will make proposals that focus on conservation, modernization, production, so that a serious problem can be solved in a way that the American people look to leaders to solve.

Fleischer has even stated that the government should try to solve problems that others have judged intractable. On May 20, 2003, for instance, Fleischer, while warning reporters that a certain territorial disagreement between Palestinians and Israelis "is not the type of dispute that will be solved immediately," nonetheless affirmed that "The president is interested in solving this process." That isn't even (except tangentially) our own country's problem. It's the world's problem!

When Fleischer and other Republicans vent about the liberal press wanting government to "solve the nation's problems," they strike an antigovernment pose in which even they don't believe. Rather than pretend government shouldn't solve problems at all, they should spell out which problems they want government to solve, and which they don't. The GOP rarely does that, because voters, who love vague antigovernment talk in the abstract, hate proposals to dismantle individual government programs. Bush's Social Security plan, which is going nowhere, is a case in point.

Correction, March 18: The original version of this column failed to note that the passage in question was a quotation from "The Note."

Fleischer Watch Archive:
March 15: "Introducing an ongoing inquiry."

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.