Friday, April 29, 2005

Bush's head

What is Bush trying to do? There must be some reason the White House political strategy is so screwed up. The linchpin of its entire agenda, Social Security, is looking like a failure. People don’t want what Bush is selling. But for some reason Bush is not changing course. He’s still tinkering, trying out different things, etc. You wouldn’t expect him to simply give up, but to cleverly pivot onto something – anything – else in his issue toolbox: changing the tax system, for instance. This has been the Bush MO since his days in Texas. But it hasn’t happened, and there are rising poltical costs to the White House and Republicans in Congress.

What has changed since the old, compromise-friendly Bush was running things? Two events – Iraq and reelection. The chief reason for plowing ahead on a sure loser may be because changing Social Security is at the heart of Bush’s self-image – and self-regard – as president: that he is a world-historical figure doing bold and unexpected things that will resonate in future generations. That includes promoting democracy and remaking the American political system. Maybe Social Security is not just a political issue for Bush. For whatever reason – his place in history, permanent GOP hegemony, or he stayed up late running the numbers and envisioned the looming specter of old people in the streets once the trust fund runs dry (uh) – he believes that pressing on is the only option, and will somehow redound to his favor. He has migrated to a place in his thinking where the kind of backhanded compromise necessary in this situation is not worth it.

The White House appears to have gone into the SS issue believing it could do something similar to what it did with the American public and the Iraq war. If there were additional difficulties, then the clout garnered from winning reelection could overcome them. But the political terrain is completely different. Put in the broadest, crudest sense, Iraq did address a kind of gut-level yearning a lot of people had to strike back – at someone, something, anything – in the wake of 911. And the costs, though high, have yet to be felt by most people except military families. To the degree that people have doubts or yearnings over Social Security, it’s that it still be there in some kind of recognizable form. After he rendered Iraq unrecognizable, why would the public let Bush loose on Social Security?