President Bush's cognitive dissonance.

President Bush's cognitive dissonance.

President Bush's cognitive dissonance.

How you look at things.
Feb. 3 2005 1:27 AM

Steady Leadership

President Bush's cognitive dissonance.

Tonight's State of the Union Address demonstrated again that President Bush is a man of very clear principles. He's just flexible about when to apply them.

He's for historical reflection when a Democratic program has lost the context that initially justified it: "Social Security was created decades ago, for a very different era. In those days, people did not live as long. Benefits were much lower … Our society has changed in ways the founders of Social Security could not have foreseen."

William Saletan William Saletan

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

He's against historical reflection when a Republican war has lost the context that initially justified it. All that matters is the new rationale: "The victory of freedom in Iraq will strengthen a new ally in the war on terror, inspire democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran, bring more hope and progress to a troubled region …"

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He's against scaring you if you're 55: "I have a message for every American who is 55 or older: Do not let anyone mislead you. For you, the Social Security system will not change."

In the next sentence, he's for scaring you if you're below 55: "For younger workers, the Social Security system has serious problems that will grow worse with time. … We must pass reforms that solve the financial problems."

He attributes the most unpopular Social Security ideas to Democrats: "Former Congressman Tim Penny has raised the possibility of indexing benefits to prices rather than wages. During the 1990s, my predecessor, President Clinton, spoke of increasing the retirement age. Former Sen. John Breaux suggested discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended changing the way benefits are calculated."

In the next breath, he calls for bravery and nonpartisanship: "We have to move ahead with courage and honesty, because our children's retirement security is more important than partisan politics."

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When he's helping you, he appeals to your self-interest: "Here's why the personal accounts are a better deal. Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver … And best of all, the money in the account is yours."

When he's shafting you, he appeals to your altruism: "If you've got children in their 20s, as some of us do, the idea of Social Security collapsing before they retire does not seem like a small matter."

He's for low financial risk—and he's for high financial reward. Ownership of stocks and bonds, he insists, will give young people "security—and choice."

He's for fiscal restraint: "My budget substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs that are not getting results … Taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, or not at all."

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Unless you're a special interest: "My budget provides strong funding for leading-edge technology—from hydrogen-fueled cars, to clean coal, to renewable sources such as ethanol."

He's a realist when the evidence confirms his claims of a threat to the United States: "Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and nine other countries have captured or detained al Qaeda terrorists. In the next four years, my administration will continue to build the coalitions that will defeat the dangers of our time."

He's an idealist when the evidence doesn't: "Our generational commitment to the advance of freedom, especially in the Middle East, is now being tested and honored in Iraq."

He threatens the two Axis-of-Evil countries that are building nukes: "There are still regimes seeking weapons of mass destruction, but no longer without attention and without consequence."

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He keeps our troops in the one that isn't: "We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq."

For foreign consumption, he opposes the imposition of Western values: "Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures."

In the next breath, for domestic consumption, he supports it: "The advance of freedom … has great momentum in our time, shown by women voting in Afghanistan."

He's for liberty at home: "Two weeks ago, I stood on the steps of this Capitol and renewed the commitment of our nation to the guiding ideal of liberty for all. This evening I will set forth policies to advance that ideal at home and around the world."

Unless you're gay: "For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage."

Thank goodness he beat that flip-flopper.