The Impotence of Being Earnest

The Impotence of Being Earnest

The Impotence of Being Earnest

How you look at things.
Jan. 11 2001 3:00 AM

The Impotence of Being Earnest

Ten days before he takes office, George W. Bush, who vowed to "change the tone" and govern as "a uniter, not a divider," is engulfed in flaming confirmation battles fanned by furious recriminations. This is a lesson in how hard it is to transcend partisanship, and how crippling it is to have won the presidency on a promise to do so.

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Cynics say it doesn't matter how you win elections. But that assertion, like most cynical clichés, is naive. Ideas have consequences. People remember your promises. If you win on a pledge of "no new taxes" and then sign a tax increase, you lose votes next time and maybe your job. In 2000, Bush ran as a uniter, while Al Gore ran as a populist who would "fight for you" against "the powerful interests." By drawing lines and naming targets, Gore's message made it harder for him to get elected. But it would have made it easier for him to wage partisan battles as president because adversity reinforced his rationale. Bush, on the other hand, chose a bipartisan message that made it easier for him to get elected. Now he is paying the price: A president who promised to stop the fighting can't, once attacked, fight back without forfeiting his rationale. He is a political hemophiliac, surviving at the mercy of his adversaries.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

For the past week, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer has lectured reporters daily about how determined Bush is to "change the tone," and how "disappointed" he is that some liberals aren't cooperating. On Jan. 4, Fleischer lamented that organizations opposing Bush Cabinet nominees John Ashcroft, Linda Chavez, and Gale Norton were "seeking to divide as opposed to unite." Fleischer dismissed these organizations as "special-interest groups," accused them of exploiting "ideological divides," and drew a "contrast" between their obstructionism and the deference a "Republican Senate" accorded Clinton's "very liberal nominees." Nevertheless, he vowed, "President Bush is going to work as hard as he can in a bipartisan fashion to bring people together, even in the face of any partisan groups that seek to divide."

Change the tone? Let's start with the tone of these lectures. If voters wanted their intelligence piously insulted, they would have elected Gore. The Bush administration's spin on the confirmation fights is divisive about divisiveness, ideological about ideology, and partisan about partisanship. It says Democrats are too partisan, liberals are too ideological, and Bush seeks unity "in the face of" those who would divide us. Bush himself never proposes to divide the country. He merely reiterates at every opportunity that his philosophy "stands in stark contrast" to that of his divisive opponents. And what separates sowing division from drawing contrasts? A distinction without a difference.

How did a candidate who sincerely prefers cooperation end up in this position? By campaigning on style rather than substance. He outlined proposals but kept them peripheral and vague. Instead of seeking a mandate for a clear direction, as Ronald Reagan did, Bush emphasized that he was a uniter. Toward what would he unite us? He glossed over that question, leaving each voter to infer that Bush shared her views. Bush made it through the primaries, the convention, and the debates without filling in the answers. Political consultants who favor this kind of campaign think that a candidate who wins this way gets the ideal prize: a blank check. They misunderstand. The blank check issued by middle-of-the-road voters in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Florida wasn't made out to Bush. It was made out to unity. And without unity—which neither party can secure alone—Bush can't cash it.

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When Bush was in Austin or on the campaign trail, he could take on the Washington fray as an abstraction. Now he has to take on people within it, starring in the very drama he decried. When Democrats gravitate toward his views, as House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt has done on tax cuts, Bush's talk of bipartisanship looks compelling and farsighted. But when Democrats turn against him, Bush must either back down or fight, and fighting is what he promised not to do. His attempts to spin his side of the quarrel as a stand against quarreling are, as Fleischer has demonstrated, irretrievably oxymoronic. Bush looks like the child who, having been caught by his exasperated mother in a sibling brawl, protests that his brother started it. He may be right, but his mother doesn't care.

Perhaps it's only fitting that Bush, who triangulated off congressional Republicans as well as Democrats, now governs at the sufferance of both. Democrats can blackmail him with threats of confrontation. And even if he bites his tongue, Republicans can escalate the war by taking the Democrats' bait. To see how quickly and thoroughly both sides can trash Bush's bipartisan conceit, look what happened this week on Meet the Press, as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and moderator Tim Russert discussed the Ashcroft nomination.

Kerry: It is a divisive, not a unifying, nomination, and [Bush] has specifically said he is a unifier, not a divider. …

Kyl: So much for bipartisanship. My two Senate colleagues here have already begun the attack on John Ashcroft. … I think that the pre-emptory attacks here on John Ashcroft are more politics, and that they don't bode well for the spirit of bipartisanship, which I thought we were all trying to promote. …


Russert: John Ashcroft gave a speech in 1999 [saying] … "There are voices in our party today who preach pragmatism, champion conciliation, counsel compromise. I stand here today to reject those deceptions." …

Kyl: I would have thought that the leadership of the Democratic Party would have tried to meet President Bush halfway and not speak negatively about a nominee simply because he is more conservative than they are. …

Russert: Could George W. Bush have selected someone else as attorney general who was … not as controversial or a lightning rod like John Ashcroft? If he wanted to change the tone in Washington, why didn't he?

What a disaster. Kerry, citing Bush's promise of unity, instantly discredits it by opposing Ashcroft and blaming Bush for provoking his opposition. Kyl fires back, ignoring the Bush team's talking points and wrecking the pretense of bipartisanship. Russert points out that Ashcroft was a commando in the ideological wars Bush promised to end. The exchange concludes with Bush appearing to have betrayed his "change the tone" pledge simply by appointing someone "controversial." Since the easiest thing to create in Washington is a controversy, Democrats can put Bush in this bind as often as they wish. You have to feel compassion for the guy. He's empowered to do as president exactly what he promised to do as a candidate: nothing.