The Reality Thing

SYNOPSIS: The administration's arrogance thing and ideology thing prevent it from dealing with actual economic problems and the reality thing

You can say this about the Bush administration: where others might see problems, it sees opportunities.

A slump in the economy was an opportunity to push a tax cut that provided very little stimulus in the short run, but will place huge demands on the budget in 2010. An electricity shortage in California was an opportunity to push for drilling in Alaska, which would have produced no electricity and hardly any oil until 2013 or so. An attack by lightly armed terrorist infiltrators was an opportunity to push for lots of heavy weapons and a missile defense system, just in case Al Qaeda makes a frontal assault with tank divisions or fires an ICBM next time.

President George H. W. Bush once confessed that he was somewhat lacking in the "vision thing." His son's advisers don't have that problem: they have a powerful vision for America's future. In that future, we have recently learned, the occupant of the White House will have the right to imprison indefinitely anyone he chooses, including U.S. citizens, without any judicial process or review. But they are rather less interested in the reality thing.

For the distinctive feature of all the programs the administration has pushed in response to real problems is that they do little or nothing to address those problems. Problems are there to be used to pursue the vision. And a problem that won't serve that purpose, whether it's the collapse of confidence in corporate governance or the chaos in the Middle East, is treated as an annoyance to be ignored if possible, or at best addressed with purely cosmetic measures. Clearly, George W. Bush's people believe that real-world problems will solve themselves, or at least won't make the evening news, because by pure coincidence they will be pre-empted by terror alerts.

But real problems, if not dealt with, have a way of festering. In the last few weeks, a whole series of problems seem to have come to a head. Yesterday's speech notwithstanding, Middle East policy is obviously adrift. The dollar and the stock market are plunging, threatening an already shaky economic recovery. Amtrak has been pushed to the edge of shutdown, because it couldn't get the administration's attention. And the federal government itself is about to run out of money, because House Republicans are unwilling to face reality and increase the federal debt limit. (This avoidance thing seems to be contagious.)

So now would be a good time to do what the White House always urges its critics to do put partisanship aside. Will Mr. Bush be willing to set aside, even for a day or two, his drive to consolidate his political base, and actually do something that wasn't part of his preconceived agenda? Oh, never mind.

I think that most commentators missed the point of the story about Mr. Bush's commencement speech at Ohio State, the one his aide said drew on the thinking of Emily Dickinson, Pope John Paul II, Aristotle and Cicero, among others. Of course the aide's remarks were silly but they gave us an indication of the level of sycophancy that Mr. Bush apparently believes to be his due. Next thing you know we'll be told that Mr. Bush is also a master calligrapher, and routinely swims across the Yangtze River. And nobody will dare laugh: just before Mr. Bush gave his actual, Aristotle-free speech, students at Ohio State were threatened with expulsion and arrest if they heckled him, and were instructed to offer "thunderous applause" instead.

It's interesting to note that the planned Department of Homeland Security, while of dubious effectiveness in its announced purpose, will be protected against future Colleen Rowleys: the new department will be exempted from both whistle-blower protection and the Freedom of Information Act.

But back to the festering problems: on the economic side, this is starting to look like the most dangerous patch for the nation and the world since the summer of 1998. Back then, luckily, our economic policy was run by smart people who were prepared to learn from their mistakes. Can you say the same about this administration?

As I've noted before, the Bush administration has an infallibility complex: it never, ever, admits making a mistake. And that kind of arrogance tends, eventually, to bring disaster. You can read all about it in Aristotle.

Originally published in The New York Times, 6.25.02