The Great Pretender
Yesterday, I seconded Steve Soto's motion that John Kerry should fire up his Democratic base by returning to first principles, be himself, and stop trying to be someone he's not. Today, I suggest that George W. Bush has a similar problem holding on to a substantial, if diminishing, part of the traditional Republican base. To solve his problem, Bush will have to do the opposite: pretend to be someone he's not.
Bush's fiscal policies have alienated principled conservatives throughout the Republican Party. Many are justifiably frightened of what he has done to our short-term ability to afford the domestic security we need and our long term ability to maintain a strong economy and sound fiscal health.
To gain the votes of true conservatives and win reelection, Bush has to pretend that he will be a rational, prudent, thoughtful, and fair guardian of the future of our country. It's not an easy deception to peddle. Past performance, as Wall Street knows too well, really is a guide to future performance. (That's one reason why investment firms spend so much money advertising their historic rates of return.)
As Republicans were gathering in New York two weeks ago, Brad DeLong's web site noted that Wall Street is "backing away from Bush." Along the way he referred to Peter G. Peterson's new book, Running On Empty.
A Republican in the financial services industry concurs. “Many of them may be maxed out,” he said, referring to campaign contributions that have hit the legal ceiling, “but they are backing away from Bush.”
The deficit has been criticised by Peter Peterson, chairman and co-founder of Blackstone Group, the New York investment firm, and former commerce secretary under President Richard Nixon. In his new book, Running on Empty, he accuses both parties of recklessness but attacks the Republican leadership for a “new level of fiscal irresponsibility.”
Peterson is the epitome of a traditional conservative Republican. Just the other day, he spoke at the Council on International Relations. His remarks were titled, like his book, Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It. A transcript of the speech is now available on-line.
The speech and following Q-and-A make for a good, quick read -- entertaining, personal, thought provoking, and insightful, regardless of one's political persuasion. Peterson whacks at a lot of sacred cows with Democratic coloring as well as Republican. "My party has not seen a tax cut it didn't like. It might be charged many Democrats have hardly seen a universal entitlement program they did not like," he says.
But his criticisms go well beyond the usual partisanship. He offers a reasoned, fact-based analysis of the "startling recklessness" of the Bush administration even while acknowledging the nation's commitments to the poor and elderly, and affirming that they must be honored.
Many may agree with me that Peterson's diagnosis is correct even if not all of his specific prescriptions are sound. I worry particularly about his self-interested suggestion leading to the partial privatization of Social Security. But his insights do provide a starting point for a rational discussion about the issues that should be among those dominating this campaign.
I doubt that Bush can win reelection without the votes of Republican conservatives like Peterson. I fear what will become of us if he can.