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JONATHAN CHAIT

The right gets a taste of Bush's `honesty'

Conservatives are finally getting a taste of his misleading rhetoric.

May 21, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

IT APPEARS that the scales have fallen from David Frum's eyes. The former Bush speechwriter, and current National Review writer, once had faith in the basic decency and honesty of George W. Bush. But now the president he once served so loyally, and whose honesty he once found above reproach, has done something utterly uncharacteristic. He has presented his policies in a misleading light.

No! you say. This can't be true! But it is. Allow me to quote Frum: "Putting the [National] Guard on the border is a symbolic act.... But I am afraid that in this case the symbolism is manipulative and deceptive."

Deceptive? Bush? He must have the wrong guy. Just a couple of years ago, Frum wrote: "I've always thought it strange that so many on the left have chosen to make an issue of President Bush's honesty. The president is, if anything, almost excessively direct and self-endangeringly truthful."

It's funny. I remember when Bush insisted that he wanted to bring the parties together to pass a patients' bill of rights, even as he arm-twisted Republicans who favored such a bill into renouncing it. I remember when he insisted that lower-income workers reaped the biggest share of his tax cuts. I remember when he presented his stem cell position as a way to dramatically expand research opportunities. One could say that misleading rhetoric was the hallmark of Bush's political style. But if you said that two years ago, you were a rabid Bush-hater.

Now the immigration debate, which has turned the right against itself, has provoked a kind of right-wing glasnost. Former Bush loyalists are discovering all sorts of unpleasant things about him, and each other.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, which favors more open immigration, sadly noted that the party's "restrictionists still aren't satisfied" with Bush's compromise plan.

"Bush attempted to meet his own party's restrictionists halfway," the editors fumed, "and they are saying it still isn't enough."

Conservative Republicans refusing to compromise! Can you imagine? And this is the same Wall Street Journal editorial page that flays any Republican who wants to pass a tax cut only slightly less enormous than the one favored by the party's right wing. The Journal has spent years leading torch-bearing mobs through the ranks of its party, hunting for heretics. And now the party base, ungrateful for the Journal's years of service to the cause of ideological purity, is refusing to settle for half a loaf on its own top priority. The nerve.

During his immigration speech, Bush asserted that "some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant." National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez angrily retorted, "Do you know anyone who seriously argues such a thing?" Why, it's almost as if Bush turns his opponents' beliefs into some kind of a caricature.

ACTUALLY, some of us have noted that tendency for a while. Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote a story in 2004 detailing how Bush attacks straw men time after time. "Some say" is generally Bush's cue to viciously mischaracterize the other side. For instance, "Some say, 'Well, [fighting terrorism] is just a matter of law enforcement and intelligence,' " or, "Some say, 'Well, maybe the recession should have been deeper.' "

National Review did not laud Milbank for noting this Bushian tendency. It did, however, publish an article two weeks later attacking him as "probably the most anti-Bush reporter currently assigned to the White House by a major news organization."

This outbreak of unflattering conservative insights suggests two possibilities. The first is that, until this moment, Bush never used dishonest tactics to frame his views and those of his critics, and conservative activists never displayed a fanatical aversion to compromise. Somehow, though, Bush and the conservatives are suddenly using tactics against each other that they were too honest and thoughtful to use against the Democrats.

The second possible interpretation is that they've been like this all along, and the conservatives are only starting to notice because for once they're on the receiving end.

I know which interpretation I'm going with.

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