Their essential thesis is that the president is the perfect product of the political culture of Texas, a state where the first and major role of government is to help business. “Help” in that sentence is to be as broadly defined as possible, including perhaps almost all the ways Paulie Walnuts “helps” Tony Soprano. Ivins and Dubose argue that while most of us have been caught up watching the president negotiate the challenges brought on by 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, somewhere in the wings his minions have been industriously implementing a radical pro-business agenda. After reading about how the administration has not enforced regulations and not funded programs while cutting taxes and funneling subsidies to special funds, one might even suspect, if only momentarily, that al Qaeda is a Republican subsidiary designed to distract our attention while these policies are put into effect.
Okay, okay, that’s going a little far. But it is true that while the nation has been consumed by the emotional and intellectual challenges of waging a global war on terror, the Bush administration has acted as though it had won a whopping mandate running on Newt Gingrich’s 1994 playbook. Ivins and Dubose describe at length how the administration has eliminated, changed, or ignored a whole host of rules and regulations involving clean air, clean water, and clean food, all of which will make or save Bush campaign contributors a pile of money. They quote a 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture memo that defines the “fecal matter” whose presence would be sufficient to stop a company’s production line as having “a fibrous nature”; I’ll bet I can name a rancher in Midland, Texas, who knows shit comes in more shapes than that.
Overall, these chapters induce great dismay. You can understand a conservative administration being reluctant to issue new regulations that lengthen the government’s reach, but it’s just shocking when they contrive to undo long-standing and widely agreed upon social policy by tinkering in the misty netherworld of regulatory agencies. I mean, we’re talking about regulations designed to keep infectious bacteria out of processed turkey. Don’t Dick Cheney’s grandkids eat turkey?
Less shocking, at least to those who expect a certain amount of cynicism from public officials, are Ivins and Dubose’s descriptions of how the administration has attempted to camouflage its policies. In January 2002, Bush visited the Youth Opportunity Center, a job training facility in Portland, Ore. He praised it lavishly, got a lot of coverage, and a month later, eliminated its funding. He happily met with the Quecreek miners, never mentioning how his administration had been cutting the mine-safety budget and reducing the enforcement of safety standards. He has even cut the funding of his own No Child Left Behind initiative. On the first day of Gulf War II, his deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, ordered the military-service heads to provide information that would allow Bush to invoke national security exemptions to environmental laws. Okay, that one is pretty shocking. You have to wonder: Is this really what the Supreme Court elected Bush to do?
Bushwhacked is a useful read; one of the best things about it is that it manages to be critical without resorting to name calling, and drolly sarcastic without being insulting. It is most likely to have an effect in the long run. If the last decade has taught us anything about Republicans, it is that they are fatally prone to overreach; they’ll keep grabbing and grabbing until they are exposed, and we get elections like we had in 1996 and 1998. But it is more likely that Bushwhacked, and the record it exposes, will have little short-term effect. Recent events will likely make national security and foreign-policy issues the ones that will reasonate most with voters in 2004, and no matter how many people become uneasy with Bush’s policies, people do not wish him to fail. Nor in good conscience should they. The United States is committed to making Iraq a stable country, and failure to do that means leaving an oil-rich vacuum for our enemies to fill. All of which means that Democrats, who would prefer to talk about jobs and health care and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Drug Administration, had better get serious about foreign policy. They have to find some way to convince a public wary of changing horses in midstream that the first step in making Bush’s policy a success is to get rid of Bush.