Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 February 2006

The 50.1 Percent Man

If you want to know why President Bush’s percentage approval ratings hover around the thirties, you should look at another percentage. That’s the percentage by which he has tried to govern.

Ken Duberstein, former White House Chief of Staff under President Reagan, put it aptly. In recent colloquy on the “Lehrer News Hour,” he said the Bush Administration likes to govern by 50.1%. Whenever it has the barest majority, it rushes full speed ahead, ignoring advice, opposition and consequences.

A parliamentary democracy like Britain’s would discourage that approach. With a badly split electorate like ours, a vote of “no confidence” would always be just one issue away. But our Constitution allows a president, like Bush, to be elected without a majority of popular votes. It also allows Congress to govern, in most things, by a simple majority. The theory is that, if the people don’t like what they get, they can force a course correction at the next election.

Yet despite metaphorical references to the “machinery of democracy,” our nation is not a machine. It’s a vast land of nearly 300 million people. And as most of us eventually learn as we get older, people generally don’t like to be pushed around. Especially in a democracy, one has to respect people, consult them, and listen to them---including the minority---in order to govern well. That’s why most politicians, asked how to govern with the sort of “mandate” Bush got in the last two presidential elections, would respond with two simple points of advice: move to the center and compromise.

Not Bush. He came to office with a radical, “transformational” agenda and every intention of jamming it down the throats of any 49.9 percent who did not agree.

That approach may be technically constitutional, but it’s not the sort of government most Americans want or expect. Except in critical times like the Civil War and the War in Vietnam, we have generally governed ourselves, if not by consensus, then at least by majorities much broader than 50.1%. Building a bipartisan consensus is vital for a nation so vast and diverse, in which shared values are the only glue that binds us all together. Part of the function of democratic government is constantly reinforcing widely shared values.

Broad consensus and bipartisanship are not just matters of comity and good feeling. Neither of our two parties has a monopoly on truth, brains or common sense. Both have ideological blind spots that sometimes prevent them from listening to reason. As the electorate well understands, truth and good government usually lie in the middle. Governing unilaterally from the edge means courting mistakes and occasionally disaster.

Under the President’s “Texas swagger,” arrogance, stubbornness and domineering governance lie some pretty good ideas. But these repellent personal qualities and his political bullying keep many of us from hearing them or giving them their due.

If you had asked Democrats to identify the chief flaw in our foreign policy during the Cold War, most would have said that we spent too much time and money supporting vicious dictatorships, and too little fostering democracy. Now the “Bush/Rice doctrine” attempts to institutionalize the very same idea in another context. Yet many of the folks who would have supported it most enthusiastically fifteen years ago don’t listen.

Why? The answer lies in the old saw: “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” To many, the “Bush/Rice Doctrine” seems an insincere, belated justification for an unpopular war begun with false intelligence and horribly mismanaged. Instead of thinking about how wonderful a democratic world would be and how to realize it quicker, most of us 49.9% are hung up on the sad facts of history: in invading Iraq, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld junta didn’t really listen to anyone outside their own inner circle. Not only didn’t they listen to their loyal opposition; they didn’t listen to their European allies, their own Secretary of State, or their own dissenting generals. So, as if out of spite, we won’t listen to their grand ideas for reforming the world.

The President’s “ownership society” has a similar history. Who doesn’t think increasing home ownership is good for society? Who doubts that pensioners and those about to become pensioners would be better off if all their pension money were in private accounts in their own names? Certainly airline employees would be better off if bankruptcy courts couldn’t touch and “downsize” their pensions. Employees with 401(k) plans would be better off if they hadn’t been forced to invest mainly in securities of their employers. Many Baby Boomers might ultimately be better off with private accounts than they will be if Congress ever begins to address the growing imbalances in Social Security and our monstrous deficit.

Yet Bush did not present private ownership of pensions on its own merits. Nor did he invite discussion of his new idea. Instead, he used it as a ploy to “downsize” Social Security, which most older Americans see as the only certainty in a very uncertain world. Understandably, the public viewed the President’s ploy as risky and sneaky, and it never gained traction. His failure left everyone wondering whether the “ownership society” was a good idea misapplied, or just a failed pretext for an underhanded ideological attack on a program that most everyone likes and trusts but that doctrinaire conservatives have consistently opposed from its inception.

The worst example of Bush’s governing philosophy is the Supreme Court. He might have gently reminded the nation that the Court in recent years has become more ideological and less predictable. He might have gently suggested that judges of a less ideological bent would make a small but useful mid-course correction. Had he done so, a significant portion of the country’s vast center would have supported, or at least quietly accepted, his choices for the Court.

Yet he chose a far more confrontational course. He promised his most extreme supporters to change the Court’s direction radically. He hinted that opposition to Roe v. Wade and support for fundamentalist Christianity were among his objectives. He scared the living daylights out of the 49.9%. Then, to rub salt in the wound, he announced he would use Republicans’ congressional majority to ram his nominations through, even threatening the “nuclear option” of outlawing filibusters.

The result was predictable: mindless polarization and a political battle royal that was far more heat than light. When a superbly qualified and experienced candidate like Sam Alito gets fewer Democratic votes than a flawed candidate like Clarence Thomas, you know that something has gone wrong.

The irony is that all this may have been nothing more than a political charade. Neither Chief Justice Roberts nor Justice Alito is likely to be as radical as President Bush seems to have promised or as his opponents fear. Both testified consistently to a “conservative” approach, but with a small “c.” Both praised respecting precedent, making only incremental changes, and justifying conclusions with detailed legal analysis, not a judge’s own personal policy views. Furthermore, lifetime tenure has a way of reinforcing judicial independence. After a few years on the Court, Justices have a way of forgetting who appointed them and thinking about history and this nation’s great principles, which they are sworn to defend.

So what did Bush’s “in your face” approach accomplish? In a scant few months he managed to stir up a hornet’s nest of fear and suspicion, undermine judicial independence (or at least the public’s perception of it), tarnish the public image of the Supreme Court, cast doubt upon the integrity of his own nominees, and reinforce a political division that may take a generation to heal. All this he did for temporary political advantage, in the hope of “energizing his base” and maintaining a 50.1% majority. Most dispassionate observers would say that was not a rational trade-off, nor in the country’s long-term best interest.

The real tragedy of the Bush approach to government is what it has done to the nation. A people that was wholly unified after the attacks of September 11 is now divided against itself. The 49.9% is sullen, resentful and full of suspicion. Congress is so polarized it can barely function, despite a Republican majority. And a secret spying program against Al Qaeda has become controversial largely because most of the 49.9%---and even some of the 50.1%---don’t trust their own government to do the right thing, especially in secret.

Whoever follows Bush as president will have a hell of a job to unify the country and govern from the center. Healing the deep wounds that Bush’s 50.1% approach has inflicted will take supernatural political skill. Even with that skill, complete healing may take a generation, as it did after Watergate.

In the meantime, an insanely polarized and nearly bankrupt country must tackle a generational war, an unsustainable and growing deficit, a new and highly competitive globalized world, and the financial drag of tens of millions of aging Baby Boomers. As the next Congress and the next Administration take shape, even President Bush’s most ardent admirers may begin to wish that he had shown more moderation and politesse and governed more from the center.

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