Friday, February 18, 2005

The Political Genius of George W. Bush

"The Political Genius of George W. Bush" was a column by Carlos Watson shortly after the election--and since Watson writes for CNN, it was praise from an unexpected source.

Truthfully, I was dubious: this was a president who had gone from circa 90% approval ratings after September 11th; to circa 70% approval ratings after the fall of Baghdad; to sink within an eyelash of unemployment on 2 Nov 2004--not the usual credentials for political genius. If the occupation of Iraq had been executed with the same skill as the fall of Afghanistan, Bush would have been elected in a landslide. Instead, the thorough-going incompetence of the Bush team inflamed, infuriated, and divided the country--and nearly led to Bush's defeat. The historic drama of the Iraqi elections in January 2005 vindicated the wisdom of the invasion--but also highlighted the tragic mismanagement over the previous two years.

What makes my mind drift back to the Bush as political genius meme is the recent opening to raising the income cap on Social Security taxes--currently getting some discussion over at National Review. In effect, President Bush is placing on the table the possibility of a deal: he will agree to raising the cap on Social Security taxes, if Democrats will give him what he wants--personal investment accounts.

As a bold gambit to break the Social Security deadlock, this borders on the brilliant--and if he pulls it off, it will be brilliant. The initiation of private accounts for Social Security would be a revolution of FDR-style proportions--something acknowledged with hope by Republicans, and with fear and loathing by leading Democrats. But the bargain that President Bush is tacitly offering is going to be very difficult to resist: the President has an excellent chance now of pulling in just enough skeptics to get this bill past. And if he gets it, his claim to being a great American president will be lit up with neon lights--much to the nausea of the hate-Bush crowd.

It is worth noting that we have seen this kind of move from him before. The core of No Child Left Behind was to trade rigorous testing and accountability for a large increase in education funding--and in the end even Ted Kennedy and John Kerry voted for the bill.

The ability to come up with a creative middleground for partisans of every stripe is one characteristic of political genius. President Bush has pulled this off at least once before as president--and he may be about to do it again.


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