Don’t Mention It

George W. Bush’s summer vacation was not only long, it was happy. After months of wrangling over the tax cut, stem cells, and the ABM treaty, Bush spent most of August honing a far less contentious fall agenda. The list included education, faith-based programs, prescription-drug coverage, and a number of other soft-focus social issues designed to highlight the administration’s fundamentally compassionate nature. These are Bush’s sort of issues. He was looking forward to talking about them.

Then the Congressional Budget Office intervened. According to the CBO, the government has much less money than it thought it did. Worse, the CBO predicted that sometime in the near future the administration will be forced to spend money from the Social Security surplus – something that six months ago, on national television, Bush explicitly promised not to do.

Suddenly, Bush had a problem. The budget is so boring and so complicated that virtually nobody outside of Congress will pay close attention to the debate over what goes in it. This means that, even more than with most issues, the public-relations battle will be won and lost with slogans. Bush needs some new slogans. What will they be?

That’s a tough one. Consider all the lines Bush can’t use as he fights with Democrats over the budget:

Dipping into Social Security is not a big deal. In fact, it’s routine. This happens to be true. Seven of the past eight budgets used money from Social Security. Congress passed the budgets. Various presidents signed them. No one lost a job over it. But Bush might. During his first economic address in February, Bush pledged to protect “the Social Security surplus for Social Security and for Social Security alone.” He has uttered the words. Democrats have the tape. Read my lips: Bush can’t reverse his position.

The Social Security surplus doesn’t really exist anyway. It’s a phony accounting category, concocted by Democrats in an effort to contain the tax cut. This is true, too, as former labor secretary Robert Reich has eloquently and repeatedly pointed out. But there are two important differences between Bob Reich and George W. Bush. Reich, an increasingly grouchy renegade within his own party, isn’t answerable to anyone. And unlike Bush, Reich never pretended that the Social Security surplus did exist.

If the tax cut is so terrible, why don’t we at least try to undo it? Bush could probably score some points with this one (he’d certainly be my hero for a day), because it is almost unanswerable. A quarter of Senate Democrats voted for the same tax cut their leadership now attacks. Some supported even larger cuts. It would be delightful to see Bush call them on their hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is considered bad form in Washington to suggest repeal of legislation you’ve supported. So Bush won’t. Sadly.

What will Bush say about the budget? As it turns out, not a lot. The White House – which in this case means economic adviser Larry Lindsay rather than the conspicuously silent Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill – has decided that the budget debate is a loser. Better to talk about the economy in general than the surplus in specific terms.

The reasoning is simple: The surplus has no constituency. As long as Social Security payments aren’t threatened – and they’re not – no one is going to cast a vote based on whether the Social Security surplus is being spent, or even exists. There will be no grassroots letter-writing campaign on its behalf. No one outside Washington is going to talk about it over dinner. As one Bush adviser put it: “Stem cell was big because everyone knows someone who has a disease. On Social Security, no one knows anyone whose benefits have been cut.”

What does matter, of course, is the economy. The midterm elections will be decided on it. Many in the White House had hoped, based on no particular evidence, that the downturn would be over by now. Now that it’s clear it is not, Bush will continue to defend and celebrate his tax cut. This is not because his advisers really believe a $300-a-person refund will keep the country out of recession. They don’t. But it makes political sense. When and if the economy does improve, the tax cut gives the administration a way to claim instant credit: Things are better; here’s how we did it.

And it gives Bush a way to contrast himself with his opponents. Which is the second part of the strategy: Appear to be doing something. Bush will spend the next month talking about tax cuts (including, possibly, cuts to the capital-gains tax), debt payment, and foreign trade. None has much to do with the thirteen appropriations bills that must be hammered out over the next several weeks. All are ways of saying: I’m concerned about the economy, and I have solutions.

Bush will have Jim Jeffords to help make his case. Without Jeffords, whose defection from the GOP gave Democrats control of the Senate, Bush would be fighting with his own party by now. The economy stumbles. The surplus disappears. How do you explain that if your team controls the entire federal government? Thanks to Jeffords, Bush doesn’t have to. Jeffords has been for Bush what Gingrich was for Clinton.

It shouldn’t be too hard for Bush to argue that congressional Democrats are better at whining about the economy than at fixing it, because they are. A couple of weeks ago, John Edwards of North Carolina went on ABC to argue his side’s case in the budget debate. Edwards is supposed to be one of the most impressive Democrats in Washington. After little more than two years in the Senate, he is planning a run for president. George Stephanopoulos asked him how, specifically, Democrats plan to avoid dipping into Social Security money. Here’s what Edwards said:

“I think the responsible thing to do is for us to work with the president, put all these things on the table, and to work through and prioritize. That’s what we should have done six months ago. That’s what we were for doing six months ago. Now that this surplus has disappeared, which by the way I think is shameful, we shouldn’t be in this place where we are now, but we are here. The American people will work with us and act in a responsible way as long as we tell them the truth. And the truth is … “

Edwards never explained what the truth was. He never explained anything. He looked ridiculous. With opponents like these, Bush is in luck. Even he can bullshit better than that.

Don’t Mention It