Bush's political comb-over.

Bush's political comb-over.

Bush's political comb-over.

How you look at things.
Jan. 30 2002 2:06 PM

The Smile and the Comb-Over

How men disguise baldness, women disguise arguments, and Bush disguises politics.

George W. Bush

As they grow up, men and women learn two subtle skills. Men learn the art of the comb-over: how to cover bald spots with hair from adjacent areas of the scalp. Women learn the art of the smile: how to argue and get their way without appearing belligerent or even self-interested. President Bush demonstrated both arts in his State of the Union address last night.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

The comb-over is Bush's way of compensating for his habit of concentrating on a few big issues. Prior to Sept. 11, he focused on passing his tax-cut, education, and energy proposals. Since Sept. 11, he has focused on fighting terrorism. The payoff for this focus is effectiveness. The price is that Democrats will exploit the issues he isn't focusing on, as they did to his father. How can Bush persuade the public that he's paying attention to issues other than national security, taxes, education, and energy? By selling his policies on national security, taxes, education, and energy as solutions to every other issue.

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Step 1 is to describe everything in terms of security. "Once we have funded our national security and our homeland security, the final great priority of my budget is economic security," Bush said last night. "We will prevail in the war, and we will defeat this recession." If the war and the economy are separate issues, Bush could look as though he's obsessing about the former while neglecting the latter. By describing the economy as the next phase of his "security" agenda, Bush assures everyone that he's moving us toward recovery.

Step 2 is to spin off the benefits of "homeland security" to get credit for addressing issues such as health care, crime, and drugs. "Homeland security will make America not only stronger, but in many ways better," said Bush. "Knowledge gained from bioterrorism research will improve public health; stronger police and fire departments will mean safer neighborhoods; stricter border enforcement will help combat illegal drugs."

Step 3 is to frame all of Bush's domestic priorities as jobs programs. "Good jobs begin with good schools," Bush began, touting his education bill. "Good jobs also depend on reliable and affordable energy," he continued, urging Congress to pass his plan to boost energy production. "Good jobs depend on expanded trade," he added, demanding trade-pact negotiating authority. "Good jobs depend on sound tax policy," he concluded, portraying his repeal of the estate tax as an antidote to unemployment.

Step 4 is to respond to Sept. 11 by repackaging Bush's campaign for volunteerism (previously presented in terms of faith-based charities) as a civic movement—and to frame that movement, in turn, as an education, poverty-fighting, and foreign aid program. "Our country also needs citizens working to rebuild our communities," said Bush. "We need mentors to love children, especially children whose parents are in prison, and we need more talented teachers in troubled schools. USA Freedom Corps will expand and improve the good efforts of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps to recruit more than 200,000 new volunteers. … We will renew the promise of the Peace Corps, double its volunteers over the next five years, and ask it to join a new effort to encourage development, and education, and opportunity in the Islamic world."

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Step 5 is to use the war to show Democrats and independents that Bush believes in women's rights and religious pluralism. As Mike Allen of the Washington Post reported on Jan. 3, by embracing Islam and denouncing the Taliban's oppression of women, "Bush has stressed themes that have also bolstered his political support at home among groups that are not his natural constituencies, including women, minorities and centrist Republicans." Last night, gesturing toward the gallery, Bush singled out Afghanistan's new Minister of Women's Affairs, noting that "today, women are free and are part of Afghanistan's new government." Bush said the war was about values such as "respect for women," "equal justice," and "religious tolerance."

Step 6 is to use the war to show religious conservatives that Bush is addressing cultural ills. Bush would prefer not to get bogged down in divisive domestic quagmires such as abortion. He'd like to find something that the religious right regards as a religious issue but everyone else regards as an issue of uncontroversial decency. That something is the country's response to Sept. 11. "For too long our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it,' " Bush said last night. "Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll.' In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like."

Like his comb-over, Bush's smile is a way of compensating for a habit fundamental to his governing style. In this case, the habit is his posture of nonpartisanship. Bush got elected by promising to "change the tone" from the partisanship of the Clinton years. As Frame Game has explained before, this promise puts Bush at a disadvantage: He can't explicitly campaign against the Democrats, for re-election or for legislation, without appearing to violate his promise. He can't even accuse them of partisanship without appearing partisan himself. He has to find subtle ways of embarrassing or pressuring them while maintaining his friendly demeanor.

Step 1 is to sustain a climate of national urgency that makes Democrats look unpatriotic if they criticize him. "Sept. 11 brought out the best in America, and the best in this Congress, and I join the American people in applauding your unity and resolve," Bush told lawmakers last night. "Now Americans deserve to have this same spirit directed toward addressing problems here at home." Later, he issued another veiled warning not to quarrel with him: "Our enemies believed America was weak and materialistic, that we would splinter in fear and selfishness. They were as wrong as they are evil."

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Step 2 is to define unity as support for Bush's policies. Bush can't openly argue for this definition, since that would look partisan. So he works it in as an invisible assumption. "I ask you to join me on these important domestic issues in the same spirit of cooperation we have applied to our war against terrorism," he told Congress. Note the key phrase: Join me. On taxes, Bush argued, "The way out of this recession, the way to create jobs, is to grow the economy by encouraging investment in factories and equipment and by speeding up tax relief so people have more money to spend." Democrats tried to steal the tax-cut issue by presenting a choice between Bush's back-loaded tax cut and their front-loaded tax cut. By describing faster tax cuts as a "speeding up" of his tax cut rather than as an alternative, Bush recaptures credit for the idea.

Step 3 is to attack Democrats through code words so as to hurt or pressure them without looking political. As Frame Game has previously noted, Bush's favorite code words are "House" (GOP) and "Senate" (Democrats). Last night, Bush charged, "On these two key issues, trade and energy, the House of Representatives has acted to create jobs; and I urge the Senate to pass this legislation." This sentence combined three tricks: the invisible assumption that Bush's legislation was the way to unite behind a solution; the double-billing of the trade and energy measures as jobs programs; and the concealment of this partisan accusation behind the terms "House" and "Senate."

Step 4 is to hurl familiar ideological buzzwords without attaching explicit labels to them. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used to charge that liberals were big spenders whereas conservatives were fiscally responsible. Bush uses the same predicates but omits the subjects. "To win the war, protect the homeland, and revitalize our economy, our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short term so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible manner," Bush asserted last night. Everyone got Bush's message: You can't take liberals seriously when they complain that I'm busting the budget, since we all know that they're the big spenders. By omitting the word "liberal," Bush delivered the punch without looking mean.

House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, whose speech followed Bush's, used many of the same techniques. While Bush combed his hair from national security to the economy, Gephardt combed the Democrats' hair from the economy to national security and from Enron to other domestic issues. Like Bush, Gephardt tried to smile his way through the conflict by defining unity and patriotism as support for his own agenda. Nice try, guys. The sweet talkers and balding men of the world know exactly what you're doing.