The Masters of Spin

Why the Bush administration is the most arrogant in memory

        THE PRE-WAR spin was all about weapons of mass destruction and the price of U.S. inaction. Bush said we couldn’t afford to wait until there was a mushroom cloud. Critics who suspect the intelligence data about Saddam’s nuclear program was hyped are brushed aside like gnats on an elephant. Bush says they’re engaging in “revisionist history,” which is on a par with calling Watergate a third-rate burglary.

        Bush wins the spin for now. The debate over weapons of mass destruction is an inside-the-Beltway story; it’s not resonating with the public. The bigger question is existential: do the gods punish hubris?

        This is the most arrogant administration in memory. Every day brings another issue where a careful observer of the political scene cannot believe what’s happening. The latest outrage has the White House spinmeisters editing a report by the EPA on the status of the environment to omit mounting concern about climate change. The spinners have already stricken the phrase “global warming” in favor of the more benign “climate change.” The offending line declared, “Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment.” In its place, the White House inserted a bunch of gobbledygook about how the “complexity of the Earth system” and various “interconnections” make it a challenge to render scientific judgments.

        Howls from environmentalists go unanswered. The administration’s attitude is like the phone company before the breakup of AT&T when Lily Tomlin, the comedic actress, appeared on stage as a telephone operator telling irate customers, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.”

        Karl Rove, the grand wizard of spin, is a smart man with a historical perspective. He is a student of the American consciousness, and he knows that the American public is disengaged from politics. That’s the reality that makes voters today uniquely susceptible to such deceptive spin. Apocalyptic assertions by Bush and other administration officials in the months leading up to the war created the impression of such an imminent threat that it’s not surprising Americans got confused. One third of those questioned in a poll taken by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland believe that U.S. forces have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Twenty-two percent said Iraq actually used chemical or biological weapons in the recent war.

        Most Americans have no idea who the Democratic candidates are, and Bush’s fund-raising blitz is designed to envelop his re-election in an aura of inevitability. It’s summer in Washington even though the dreary, wet weather feels like April. If by Labor Day, U.S. inspection teams haven’t found WMD and Iraq is looking like a quagmire, then the public might wake up and credibility could become a serious issue for Bush. As insurance against that outcome, Bush is shifting the political conversation to a looming confrontation with Iran, which will keep war alive as an issue for 2004. An uninformed public disengaged from politics and an administration that knows no shame are the ideal conditions for Bush to win a second term.

        Democrats once hoped that a return to domestic issues, where they hold an advantage, would be Bush’s undoing. But the White House spin machine succeeds here, as well. Republicans who ordinarily deplore big government are cheering the potential expansion of Medicare to provide a prescription-drug benefit to senior citizens. Never mind that the Rube Goldberg scheme under discussion in Congress won’t go into effect until 2006 or that millions of seniors would pay more for their drugs with the benefit than they currently do without it, Bush will strut like the greatest savior of seniors since FDR brought us Social Security.

        The House just voted to repeal the estate tax permanently, a windfall for trust-fund kids that was sold on the false premise that it saves farm families from destitution at the hands of the IRS. Reporters in the farm belt failed to find a farmer with a hardship story that would illustrate the GOP’s argument. Even the American Farm Bureau Federation said it couldn’t cite a single example of a farm lost because of estate taxes. The House votes tax breaks for millionaires while children of low-income families and military families get left behind.

        One of the key strategies of the GOP is to portray Democratic critics as un-American. Remember the anonymous Bush strategist quoted some months ago suggesting Sen. John Kerry looks French. There will be two GOP campaigns: the flag-waving one on the surface that Bush is involved with, and then the sub-rosa campaign waged by surrogates that will be less gentlemanly. A very strong point in Bush’s favor is that there hasn’t been another attack on U.S. soil. He’s kept us safe, and he’s kept us fearful, a potent combination that Democrats haven’t yet figured how to crack.
       © June 20, 2003 Newsweek, Inc.