Monday, February 07, 2005

Unforgivable Overreaching: The Fall of George W. Bush

I'm halfway through watching the new Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and it has left me thinking about a subject I rarely dwell on: boxing. Unlike its typical cinematic portrayals where the combatants swing from the heels and land roundhouse after roundhouse, defense tends to be the dominant feature of any high level boxing match. The reason for this is that each aggressive attack has a tendency to leave the attacker exposed. If the attack fails (something that good defense frequently achieves) the defender has an opportunity to freely inflict damage on the attacker. At the highest levels, openings like these can quickly turn a fight. Thus, strategy demands an emphasis on defense, with cautious attacks applied only when the opportunity presents itself.

It strikes me that these principles can be applied to high-level politics as well. Typically, politicians play defense. They would prefer to say nothing at all on an issue rather than risk opening themselves to criticism. As a rule, mistakes are punished far more than boldness is rewarded. This is one of the things that leaves so many people frustrated with politics and politicians (and, frankly, with boxing and boxers as well). Unless you are invested in the minutia (in politics or boxing), it rarely seems as though anything at all is happening. But, as unfortunate as it is for the spectators, that's the way it has to be played if you want to win.

However, George W. Bush has been breaking that mold over the last four years. Whatever you might say about the wisdom of his various policy initiatives, they have been quite bold. His tax cuts, his prescription drug plan, and the Iraq invasion were all extremely aggressive moves on his part. Even some of his failed initiatives (Mars, anyone?) were quite striking in this way. This coupled with the manner in which he then wielded his power against the Democrats, portraying their principled resistance as weakness and unpatriotic treachery, again demonstrates his willingness to swing for the fences. Nothing, not even reality, could persuade him to temper his "go for broke" style of play.

But, as the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Up until this point, Bush's aggressive political style has been rewarded by two election victories, increasing Republican majorities in Congress, and an extremely successful legislative record. And, in spite of numerous points of vulnerability (the record deficits, the extremely poor job creation record, the blatant deceptions of Congress and the American people, the quagmire in Iraq, etc.), nary a blow has been landed against him. It has been quite a remarkable performance.

The thing is, though, whether the strategy is working or not, it's still bad strategy. Sure, when you're battling a lesser opponent, defense isn't particularly critical. If circumstances conspire and provide you a dramatic advantage, you can make errors and still expect to dominate. The problem is that, after a while, you'll start to forget that external factors allowed you to play the game this way. You'll start to think that the rules are different for you and that you are invulnerable.

As they say, hubris comes before the fall.

I am now starting to think that Bush's Social Security plan is the moment of overreaching. Dismantling Social Security has long been the fantasy of the American political right. Yet, for just as long, it has been considered a political third rail. It has been incredibly successful in achieving its intended goals and has enjoyed tremendous popularity, especially within older demographics (who, of course, vote in exceptionally high numbers). Until now, conservative politicians have accepted these facts as evidence that Social Security abolition is politically infeasible.

On the other hand, George is playing by his own rules now. And the game plan looks familiar. Invent a crisis, present a solution, portray opposition as irresponsible naysayers leading us all to destruction. It may be a strategy that is completely divorced from reality, but that's never been a problem before. Once again, he swinging from his heels and trying to land the knockout.

This time, though, circumstances have changed. This isn't a national security issue and therefore Bush can't play the 9/11 card. The so-called crisis is, at least, 38 years away. And the nature of the crisis is not immediately clear. Unlike the immediate terrorist threat that Bush has used unceasingly to his advantage, this crisis is ephemeral.

Moreover, the opposition appears to be uniting against him. Again, with national security, too few Democrats were willing to risk standing against Bush for fear of being portrayed as unpatriotic. This time no such fears exist. Many Democrats are proudly standing up and declaring that "there is no crisis," unconcerned that they might pay for their resistance in 2006.

These are the facts that arise before we even begin discussion of the plan specifics. Will Bush's "take no prisoners" tactics carry the day once it becomes clear that he intends to massively increase the deficit, reduce benefits, and require that individuals bear all of the risk in the new system?

At long last, George W. Bush has gone too far, and in doing so he has left himself exposed. For a time, Bush has viewed himself as being politically invincible and thus far the evidence has vindicated that opinion.

This time, though, his chin is showing.
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