Who’s the Boss?

Missionary or mercenary? Put more plainly, what is George Bush at his core: a creature of the Christian right or a dutiful retainer of the millionaires boys club? Jon Chait, a senior editor at the New Republic, takes on this question in The Big Con, but only to dismiss it almost immediately. George Bush, he says, is an avatar of the modern Republican Party, and Chait has little doubt what todays GOP really cares about:

American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane … The scope of their triumph is breathtaking. Over the course of the last three decades, they have moved from the right-wing fringe to the commanding heights of the national agenda.

And the Christian right? Theyre being conned along with the rest of us: Republican leaders have persistently declined to expend political capital on behalf of social conservative causes, Chait says. They pretend to care about abortion and gay marriage, but all you have to do is compare the amount of energy Bush expended on a proposed same-sex marriage ban (a few hours) to the energy he expended on privatizing Social Security (several months), and the partys real priorities become pretty clear.

So: mercenary it is. And this, I think, is what saves The Big Con from being just another dreary addition to the growing pile of books telling us whats wrong with George Bush and the modern Republican Party. There are at least ten or twenty entries in this sweepstakes already (mostly by liberals but with disillusioned conservatives working hard to catch up), and the bill of particulars gets pretty monotonous after youve read a handful of them.

So the honest truth is that if youve already read a few of these books (Ive probably cracked open a dozen or so), or if you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere (it adds up to about sixty hours a week for me), you probably arent going to learn very much new from The Big Con. But if you havent, and youre only going to read one book in this genre, this is the one.

Before I explain why, I should probably lay my reviewing prejudices on the table. After six years of following the Bush administration with probably unhealthy intensity, Ive come to a couple of conclusions. First, as much as the Christian right sets my teeth on edgeand oh man, do they set my teeth on edgeIve become less and less convinced that they have as much influence over the Republican Party as we secular humanist types often fear. Sure, they get plenty of symbolic bones tossed their way (abortion funding overseas, Plan B mischief, and so on), but in terms of big, substantive policy changes, they havent exactly been winning political battles left and right, have they? Basically, they get bought off with Supreme Court appointments, and since John Paul Stevens has remained improbably hale and hearty and the next president seems likely to be a Democrat, theyre probably never going to reach their Holy Grail: a court willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. Howling about this, along with continuing to fight their losing war against gay people, will probably keep them occupied in impotent (but lucrative) rage for the next decade or so.

Second, George Bush has not turned our country into Amerika. This case is a little harder to make, since theres no question that he and Dick Cheney have pursued a relentless policy of using 9/11 as an excuse to engineer ever more monarchal powers for the White House. Just to name a few: Bush routinely uses signing statements to gut laws he doesnt like but doesnt have the nerve to veto outright; the NSA is apparently data mining millions of phone calls without even a pretense at probable cause; and habeas corpus has been suspended for American citizens on Bushs mere say-so. Still, compared to the Palmer raids of the 1920s, the internment camps of the 40s, McCarthyism in the 50s, and COINTELPRO in the 60s, its frankly remarkable that our national response to 9/11 has been as muted as it has. America may be a bit the worse for wear in the democracy department compared to six years ago, but its still America.

If you think Im crazy, I guess you can stop right here. But as odious as these things are, the truth is that fears of Bush the Fascist and Bush the Theocrat are little more than minstrel shows that distract us from truly taking notice of Bush the Plutocratand thats the Bush that really matters.

This, along with Chaits trademark take-no-prisoners writing style, is the great strength of The Big Con. Instead of providing a long laundry list of familiar Republican sins, Chait focuses on the four or five that really matter, all of them related because theyre in service to one great primal sin: the by now almost complete subordination of the modern Republican Party to business interests and the rich.

Take supply-side economics. There are, its true, a few honest supply-siders who are careful about what they say: namely that some tax cuts, under some circumstances, if theyre matched by spending cuts, can modestly stimulate economic growth and pay for about half their cost in the very long term. But it was never sold this way, and more than a decade ago it lost even its original tenuous groundings in reality. Instead, its become little more than a carnival barkers cure-all: Cut taxes and the economy will boom! There isnt a practicing economist in the country who believes this, but that hasnt stopped Republican primaries from becoming virtual meat markets where the candidates vie to outbid each other over their fealty to tax cuts today, tax cuts tomorrow, tax cuts forever.

Why? As Chait points out, the answer is simple if you dont mind being thought unsophisticated: Republicans do it not because its defensible policy, but because tax cut jihadism is popular with both the rich donors and the corporate lobbying groups who contribute to their campaigns.

How do they get away with this? Chait rightly ascribes part of the answer to a second big modern Republican sin: their almost complete disregard for policy analysis. As John DiIulio famously discovered after working for Bush for only a few months back in 2001, Republicans simply dont care about actual problems anymore. There were, he told Ron Suskind, not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions held in his presence during his half year in the White House. Republicans, it turns out, have managed to fool themselves into believing that their war on taxes is a fully sufficient economic policy in the simplest possible way: by resolutely avoiding serious factual analysis that runs the risk of producing answers that business interests might find disagreeable. Analysis is for wimps who dont trust their guts (and their pocketbooks).

What else? Theres the post-Gingrich discovery by Republicans that an awful lot of what happens in Washington isnt governed by actual rules, but by mere traditions. Conference committees have always been appointed by leaders of both parties, but if the majority decides to appoint whomever it wants, it turns out that the minority cant actually do anything about it. Business lobbyists arent supposed to act as surrogate whips for the congressional leadership, but it turns out theres no actual law against it. Mid- level bureaucrats and scientists have historically testified (honestly) when Congress calls on them, but it turns out that no regulation prevents political appointees from keeping them muzzled and providing bowdlerized testimony in their place.

All of these things serve a single purpose: passing business-friendly pork as efficiently and as quietly as possible. Tax bills, energy bills, Medicare prescription bills: all become mere vehicles for corporate largesse.

Theres also the peculiar way in which Republicans publicly defend their policies: by talking like liberals. Republicans simply cant win office or get their plans enacted into law, without fundamentally misleading the public, Chait says. Lying has become a systematic necessity. The reason is obvious: if you sell tax cuts on their actual merits (i.e., they help Enron and Rupert Murdoch), no one will support you. Chait again: If the Republicans had truly believed that the public shared their goals … Businessmen would simply have come forward to proudly announce their support for the tax cuts, explaining that rewarding wealth and success would create a rising tide for one and all. But they didnt. Instead, after the 2000 election, Republicans sold their tax cuts first as a way of giving back the surplus to hardworking Americans; then as a way of fighting a recession; and finally as a way of making the tax code fairer to the poor. Any rationale would do except the real one.

And its not just tax cuts. Business-friendly environmental policies are sold as Healthy Forests and Clear Skies. Business-friendly legal policies are sold as a way to stop lawsuit abuse. Business-friendly Medicare legislation is sold as a way of helping out Granny and Gramps. And the whole thing is sold under the umbrella of compassionate conservatism. It turns out that the only way to sell business-friendly conservative policies is to pretend theyre actually liberal policies.

As Chait points out, however, Republicans could never have gotten away with this without some help from the media. Its not that members of the media support Republican policiesfor the most part they dontbut that theyre trained to assume that the center is a reasonable place to be, and that the center is the midpoint between the two parties. If one party becomes much more radical while the other becomes more moderate, the midpoint moves, and the media moves right along with it.

Chait also zeroes in on something else that gets little attention from the media itself: most reporters really dont care much about policy. In fact, theyre often contemptuous of it. Rather, they care about personalities, character, scandals, polling numbers, and backroom deal making. The result is that Republicans can engage in transparent class warfare with barely even a pretense at serious justification and the press either doesnt notice or doesnt really care. Policy is something for partisans to argue about, not a subject for the supposedly dispassionate press corps to get exercised about.

But eventually someone needs to notice that Republican policy is no longer rooted in any kind of recognizable conservative principle. Instead, it has become little more than a program of preventing the middle class from sharing in the gains of economic growth and divvying up the resulting loot among the richest of the rich. There is, unfortunately, no longer a more delicate way of explaining it. Let Chait have the last word: The conservatives of today … have redefined conservatism as an expression of their material self-interest, defined in the narrowest and most short-sighted terms. They have forgotten the lessons of their forebears, and if sanity is to be restored to our political order, they must relearn them. ?