Hopes and Fears for the New Bush Administration
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GWEN IFILL: Anyone looking to President Bush’s inauguration speech for insight into his new presidency could certainly have paused over his reflections about the nation’s ideals.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our democratic faith is more than the creed of our country. It is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry, but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along. And even after nearly 225 years, we have a long way yet to travel. While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth, and sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is a serious work of leaders and citizens and every generation, and this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.
GWEN IFILL: When George W. Bush speaks of unity, what is he really saying about what he will do, and what he won’t? We are joined tonight by four observers who take stock of the road ahead for the new President. Joining us are Amity Shlaes, columnist for the Financial Times; Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University; Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of the National Review; and Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Amity Shlaes, listening to President Bush in his inauguration speech on Saturday, what do you think he means when he’s talking about unity?
AMITY SHLAES: Well, the part I heard that I thought was so important was the opportunity part, and that’s the part that we look to the Bush administration to expand, to be sure that people really do have a chance to rise up, to give them economic opportunity. That’s a new, a Republican thing to some degree, and that’s very important and that he feels and his administration feels that that leads to unity is important as well.
GWEN IFILL: But what does unity mean, Ruy Teixeira?
RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, what indeed? I think really Bush is trying to do a couple of things. He’s trying to say that — picking up on a theme from Gore’s campaign. Gore said prosperity for all, not just a few; let’s really include everyone as the country moves forward. And he was also talking about unity in Congress, trying to work in a bipartisan way to deal with some of these problems and some of these fears and hopes that people have. So the question is, is he going to be able to do that? It’s a nice piece of rhetoric, but I think, you know, when the rubber hits the road, he may have some problems if he sticks to, for example, a commitment to a fairly big tax cut. That could cause problems.
GWEN IFILL: Ramesh Ponnuru, we were talking just now about hopes and fears, Ruy was. Exactly what are your biggest hopes for this administration at this stage?
RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think like most people, we hope that the new administration is going to be successful, that it isn’t going to fall into… we’re not going to fall into a recession that could damage the administration, or a war. I mean, the events that are going to determine the success or failure of this administration are not largely what outlook or attitude the President strikes, but what events occur in this country. I think, you know…
GWEN IFILL: Sounds like your hopes are for things that might not happen.
RAMESH PONNURU: Absolutely. I’m a conservative. I like inaction from time to time, especially when you have peace and prosperity. I think what Bush was doing in his speech is really central to what compassionate conservatism is all about. And what he’s trying to say is not that there’s not going to be differences of opinion; what his definition of unity means he’s going to try to govern with the interests of the entire country at hand, not just the people who voted for him, and that’s something where people in the past have worried that Republicans didn’t think about all Americans in that way, and he’s trying to overcome the political liability that that perception created.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Eric Dyson, did it ring that way to you as you listened to that speech?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, it certainly was an eloquent speech, written by Mike Gerson, and the implication of Thomas Jefferson, the notion of, the romantic ideal of unity, bringing together into a coherent whole all the disparate elements that constitute this American nation. What was interesting to me is that Mr. Bush certainly sounded this note of ostensible compassionate conservatism, but the reality is that the internal contradictions, I think, were rife in that speech. For instance, Mr. Bush spoke about the prison system, in saying that it was a necessity. Those of us on the left of Mr. Bush think it’s not only not a necessity, but that the creation of a prison system recreates debt peonage and extreme oppression, especially for African American and Latino people, so that the expansion of the present industrial complex comes at the expense and on the backs of those African-Americans and Latinos who also deserve a chance in life. Furthermore, I think that Mr. Bush in speaking about riding the whirlwind, and can God speak as an angel riding the whirlwind and directing the storm, the reality is the storm is being created by the choices he has made in some of his administration– for instance, Ms. Norton and Mr. Ashcroft. Though his speech speaks to a powerful form of unity in terms of romantic idealism, the reality is his hard, tough choices, politically speaking, have subverted, undercut, and undermined for those of us outside of that arc the possibility of such unity because it comes again at the expense of those most vulnerable: Women, African Americans, and others.
GWEN IFILL: So your fear is that is all talk and not about action?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, it’s the kind of talk that masks the kind of action that’s going on. It’s talk and action, but they don’t match. The talk is one thing, the walk is another. And I think that the rhetoric of high idealism and romantic embrace of unity and coherence is powerful, but it’s being undermined by the very practices of the Bush administration early on, and with the news today that Mr. Bush is really moving against those planned parenthood organizations throughout the world that also counsel abortion as an alternative and therefore undermining their funding.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s ask Amity Shlaes about that. Were you reassured as a conservative or worried in any way about his taking action so quickly by executive order on that ban on international family planning?
AMITY SHLAES: Well, I don’t think that was at all surprising. That’s what the Republicans did who were in office prior. It’s been a Clinton administration policy to do differently. It’s something that we could expect, for them to go along the traditional fault lines. Another one is whether you give abortion advice without parental consent to minors. That’s another area you can expect them to have a different view. That’s who they are. That’s where they are. They’re not that incredibly far to the right on this. We heard Laura Bush say she felt a little bit differently, maybe, on the issue of choice. It’s not particularly disturbing to me at all, no.
GWEN IFILL: Do you worry at all that President Bush– I still want to call him Governor Bush; that’s wrong– that President Bush might cave to his moderate impulses rather than resisting them?
AMITY SHLAES: Not on this front, but on taxes I do. I do. You were talking about fears before. One of the things that many of us who look from the free-market point of view feared is that he would not roll back the tax increase that we saw in the 1990s due to the deficit, but he’s proving us wrong, at least so far. He’s been very aggressive on tax cuts. You see he got some support today and yesterday from Senator Gramm and from a Democrat, Zell Miller, to put forward the tax cuts. That’s a big hope for many people who voted for Mr. Bush or who generally are for the free market. I think a lot of Democrats, too, are for tax cuts and were formerly afraid to say so because they knew the President would veto them, President Clinton. So you see you’re going to see some of them coming out of the woodwork.
GWEN IFILL: Ruy Teixeira, Michael Eric Dyson was just talking about all the things he was concerned about. But they were all things you would expect a Democratic President to do, not a Republican President to do.
RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, I don’t know if that’s quite so. I think that there are a number of things that Bush talked about in his campaign. And really this is one of the great secrets of his success in the campaign, was he responded to the Democratic themes that were really resonating with the electorate about improving health care, improving education, dealing with retirement issues, preserving Social Security and Medicare. And he was really trying to position himself as being sort of a slightly more moderate version of Gore. So those issues are in play, those concerns are in play. And I think Bush has to worry that if he sticks too closely to the parts of his program that are most divisive and will cause the most conflict with the Congress…
GWEN IFILL: Like?
RUY TEIXEIRA: Like the broad-based tax cut, which is something he feels very strongly about. When you look at what the public thinks, they’re conflicted about this. They’re not so sure that targeted or smaller tax cuts might not be a good idea. And they’re very concerned about moving on these other issues, education and health care. So I think that Bush really has to be careful he doesn’t overreach his mandate. Let’s think about the last time Republicans reached their mandate — in 1994. A lot of things went wrong then. It could happen again.
AMITH SHLAES: Let’s hear some data on that. If you look at, for example, a famous Readers Digest poll, “what do you think the appropriate tax burden for people should be?”, People said 25%. If you look at Blueprint magazine, which is a Democratic magazine, by the way, a study I often mention, only 20% or 30% of the people think that the tax code should redistribute. The tax code now redistributes more than it has ever done. The top 5% of people pay over half the taxes. I don’t see the argument that Ruy is making. There’s a general sense, an understanding that this tax hike, the two tax hikes that we’ve had were due to the deficit. Now the deficit is gone. Isn’t it only reasonable– it’s not right-wing or conservative at all– to restore that?
GWEN IFILL: Let me bring Ramesh back into this. I’m curious about whether you think now as is now the congealing conventional wisdom that George W. Bush is underestimated and therefore benefits as a result of that?
RAMESH PONNURU: Absolutely. I think that having…people having a low estimate of him has been one thing that has helped him. It helped him in the debates most famously when people saw, wow, he actually does have some mastery of this, and he surprised everyone. The October surprise in the Presidential election was Bush won the debates.
GWEN IFILL: How does it help him accomplish what he came here to do then?
RAMESH PONNURU: It helps him because every time he has an achievement against the odds, he’s beating expectations, he’s beating the conventional wisdom. And, you know, in politics there’s success creates momentum of its own. It helps you have the next success.
GWEN IFILL: What do you make of that, Michael Eric Dyson?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think that what stuns me is if an African American or woman or other minority were to be embossed in such profound mediocrity that has been apparently at some times displayed by Mr. Bush– no personal disrespect to him as an amiable, affable fellow– but the reality is, African American people have been taught very early on that we have to work harder, dig deeper, and be more profound, twice as much perhaps, than our opponents. What stuns me is in an era where Mr. Bush has opposed affirmative action with his nebulous notion of affirmative access, he has embodied the very vices of the worst understanding of what that might mean. And so it stuns me that people rally around Mr. Bush and defend him to the hilt and to the nines in his mediocrity. And we are in a nation that is so deeply and profoundly anti- intellectual that for Mr. Gore to display, for instance, the kind of profound grasp of nuts and bolts, he’s called a policy wonk and dismissed, and Mr. Bush is seen as an amiable, affable fellow, and, therefore, he is being underestimated. His underestimation then has played to his advantage, as opposed to everybody else who gets judged harshly as a result of the lack of obvious gray matter.
GWEN IFILL: Except that I’m afraid that you’re refighting the election. Right now we’re talking about the future. Here we have a President who gave a speech about civility and compassion and character. Did that ring no bells with you?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Oh, absolutely. But, you see, we’ve heard this rhetoric for so long. Even at the height of slavery in African American society, of slavery in America, people were talking about the high ideals of God and worshipping God and treating one’s fellow man right, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, the Bill of Rights were being articulated. What Martin Luther King Jr. said the night before he died was, America be true to what you said on paper. It rings soundly. It has a nice, powerful appeal to all of us who are invested in that. The problem is, it’s being contradicted by the political, pragmatic actions that have already been adopted by this administration.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Mr. — Did you want to respond?
RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I just want to point out some of the same things that are said about Bush– he’s amiable and affable, but he’s some sort of intellectual lightweight– they were said about Reagan, were said about Kennedy, said about FDR when he took office: Third-class intellect, first- class temperament was the putdown at the time. They all exceeded expectations created by the smug creators of conventional wisdom, and Bush is going to benefit, I think, from that same dynamic.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I’m certainly not in the camp that is smugly creating conventional wisdom, since I find myself on the outside of that arc. But I think that what we’re suggesting is that let’s be fair in applying the rules across the board. If we’re going to acknowledge a lack of intellectual substance at a certain level, then let’s apply that equally. Let’s be open to that across the board.
GWEN IFILL: We are so out of time. Thank you so much for joining us.