The Real Thing

SYNOPSIS: Bush pretends to be the friend of veterans, police officers, firefighters and the trapped coal miners but is cutting their federal funding to finance his tax cut for the rich. See Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo for info on the Department of Veteran's Affairs memo discussed in this article

Don't tell, maybe they won't ask. That was the message of a July memo from an official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, posted by Joshua Marshall at Citing "conservative OMB budget guidance" for spending on veterans' health care, the memo instructed subordinates to "ensure that no marketing activities to enroll new veterans occur within your networks." Veterans are entitled to medical care; but the administration hopes that some of them don't know that, and that it can save money by leaving them ignorant.

It's not the sort of thing you'd expect from an administration that wraps itself so tightly in the flag not, that is, unless you've been paying attention. For stories like this are popping up more and more often.

Take George W. Bush's decision last week to demonstrate his resolve by blocking $5.1 billion in homeland security spending. This turned out to be a major gaffe, because the rejected bill allocated money both to improve veterans' health care and to provide firefighters with new equipment, including communication systems that could have saved lives on Sept. 11. Recalling those scenes at ground zero that did so much to raise Mr. Bush's poll numbers, the president of the International Association of Firefighters warned, "Don't lionize our fallen brothers in one breath, then stab us in the back."

Or what about the trapped coal miners? After their rescue, Mr. Bush made a point of congratulating them in person and Michael Novak, writing in National Review Online, declared Somerset, Pa., the "conservative capital of the world."

But Mr. Novak didn't mention the crucial assistance provided by the federal government's Mine Safety and Health Administration. That would have raised some awkward questions: although the Bush administration's energy plans call for major increases in coal mining, its spending plans cut funds for mine safety. More conservative budget guidance.

The point is that there is an inexorably growing gap between the image and the reality of the Bush administration's policies.

Mr. Bush is a master of photo-op populism; his handlers seek out opportunities to show him mingling with blue-collar workers. But the reality is that this administration loves 'em while the TV crews are around, then leaves 'em when it comes to actual policy. And that reality is becoming ever harder to conceal.

The federal budget is now deep in deficit, and everyone except the administration thinks it will remain there not because of runaway spending, but because most of last year's tax cut has yet to take effect. And as my colleague Frank Rich points out, to offset the revenue losses from his tax cut, Mr. Bush would have to veto a $5 billion spending proposal every working day for the next year. Mr. Bush can no longer pretend, as he did during the 2000 campaign, that there is enough money for everything. Now, to justify that tax cut, he must hack steadily away at programs that matter to ordinary people.

Still, don't tax cuts also matter to ordinary people? It depends. Last year's rebate went to a lot of families. But the items still in the pipeline are income tax cuts for upper brackets especially the top bracket and elimination of the estate tax. For a married couple, only income in excess of $297,000 falls in the top bracket, and only an estate larger than $2 million pays any inheritance tax. Firefighters and coal miners don't make that kind of money.

In other words, behind the photo-ops, the administration is busy squeezing programs that benefit firefighters, police officers, coal miners, veterans and other "humble people of America" (Mr. Novak's phrase), in order to make room for tax cuts that mainly help a handful of not at all humble people. That's not demagoguery, it's the plain truth. And it's a truth that will become ever harder to disguise.

What are the political implications? When Al Gore wrote an Op-Ed article condemning the elitist policies of the Bush administration, pundits and many Democratic politicians, including his former running mate jumped on him with both feet. Populism, everyone insisted, doesn't work in American politics.

Yet conservatives enthusiastically rely on populism fake populism, based on staged shmoozing with ordinary Americans and attacks on the imagined cultural elitism of the liberal media. Why shouldn't liberals, who actually have the facts on their side, try engaging in the real thing?

Originally published in The New York Times, 8.20.02