Bush wins the spin for now. The debate over weapons of mass destruction is an inside-the-Beltway story; its 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 whats 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 administrations 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 dont care. We dont have to. Were 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. Thats 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 its 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 Bushs fund-raising blitz is designed to envelop his re-election in an aura of inevitability. Its summer in Washington even though the dreary, wet weather feels like April. If by Labor Day, U.S. inspection teams havent 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 Bushs 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 wont 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 GOPs argument. Even the American Farm Bureau Federation said it couldnt 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 Bushs favor is that there hasnt been another attack on U.S. soil. Hes kept us safe, and hes kept us fearful, a potent combination that Democrats havent yet figured how to crack.
© June 20, 2003 Newsweek, Inc.