October   8,   2004       NY Times


Ignorance Isn't Strength



I first used the word "Orwellian" to describe the Bush team in October 2000. Even then it was obvious that George W. Bush surrounds himself with people who insist that up is down, and ignorance is strength. But the full costs of his denial of reality are only now becoming clear.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have an unparalleled ability to insulate themselves from inconvenient facts. They lead a party that controls all three branches of government, and face news media that in some cases are partisan supporters, and in other cases are reluctant to state plainly that officials aren't telling the truth. They also still enjoy the residue of the faith placed in them after 9/11.

This has allowed them to engage in what Orwell called "reality control." In the world according to the Bush administration, our leaders are infallible, and their policies always succeed. If the facts don't fit that assumption, they just deny the facts.

As a political strategy, reality control has worked very well. But as a strategy for governing, it has led to predictable disaster. When leaders live in an invented reality, they do a bad job of dealing with real reality.

In the last few days we've seen some impressive demonstrations of reality control at work. During the debate on Tuesday, Mr. Cheney insisted that "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11." After the release of the Duelfer report, which shows that Saddam's weapons capabilities were deteriorating, not advancing, at the time of the invasion, Mr. Cheney declared that the report proved that "delay, defer, wait wasn't an option."

From a political point of view, such exercises in denial have been very successful. For example, the Bush administration has managed to convince many people that its tax cuts, which go primarily to the wealthiest few percent of the population, are populist measures benefiting middle-class families and small businesses. (Under the administration's definition, anyone with "business income" - a group that includes Dick Cheney and George Bush - is a struggling small-business owner.)

The administration has also managed to convince at least some people that its economic record, which includes the worst employment performance in 70 years, is a great success, and that the economy is "strong and getting stronger." (The data to be released today, which are expected to improve the numbers a bit, won't change the basic picture of a dismal four years.)

Officials have even managed to convince many people that they are moving forward on environmental policy. They boast of their "Clear Skies" plan even as the inspector general of the E.P.A. declares that the enforcement of existing air-quality rules has collapsed.

But the political ability of the Bush administration to deny reality - to live in an invented world in which everything is the way officials want it to be - has led to an ongoing disaster in Iraq and looming disaster elsewhere.

How did the occupation of Iraq go so wrong? (The security situation has deteriorated to the point where there are no safe places: a bomb was discovered on Tuesday in front of a popular restaurant inside the Green Zone.)

The insulation of officials from reality is central to the story. They wanted to believe Ahmad Chalabi's promises that we'd be welcomed with flowers; nobody could tell them different. They wanted to believe - months after everyone outside the administration realized that we were facing a large, dangerous insurgency and needed more troops - that the attackers were a handful of foreign terrorists and Baathist dead-enders; nobody could tell them different.

Why did the economy perform so badly? Long after it was obvious to everyone outside the administration that the tax-cut strategy wasn't an effective way of creating jobs, administration officials kept promising huge job gains, any day now. Nobody could tell them different.

Why has the pursuit of terrorists been so unsuccessful? It has been obvious for years that John Ashcroft isn't just scary; he's also scarily incompetent. But inside the administration, he's considered the man for the job - and nobody can say different.

The point is that in the real world, as opposed to the political world, ignorance isn't strength. A leader who has the political power to pretend that he's infallible, and uses that power to avoid ever admitting mistakes, eventually makes mistakes so large that they can't be covered up. And that's what's happening to Mr. Bush.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com


Sounding Desperate
The latest stage of the campaign has Bush trying to tear down Kerry as the news from Iraq tears down the president


By Howard Fineman


Updated: 5:50 p.m. ET Oct. 7, 2004

Oct. 7 - George Bush's real political enemy now isn't so much John Kerry as it is the flow of the news. Not long ago, Kerry's decision to attack the president as commander in chief (remember all those Swift Boat vets in Boston?) was dismissed by analysts (including me) as naive at best, folly at worst. Well, it may turn out to have been the move that wins this race.

Presidential campaigns take on a life and shape of their own in the last stretch and this one now has. It's the president desperately trying to tear down Kerry as the news tears down the president. Good things are happening in the war on terrorism—the voting in Afghanistan, for example—but they are all but unnoticed in the rising flood of stories from and about Iraq.

As things now stand, Bush is left with only one argument and justification for having launched a war that has cost 1,000 lives, $150 billion and whatever goodwill America had won in the aftermath of 9/11. His last-resort reason: Saddam Hussein might have developed weapons that he might have given to terrorists that might attack the United States. And even that reasoning is undermined by the new report of the Iraq Survey Group, which says that Saddam's capacities, whatever they might have been, were withering, not "gathering," under the weight of inspections.

We now know to a relative certainty that there were no WMD, no relationship with Al Qaeda to speak of, no close ties to other major terrorists, and that, in the view of Paul Bremer—Bush's own man in Baghdad and a fellow Yalie—the Bush administration pretty much botched the occupation.

One new poll out shows that half the American people now think the war in Iraq was a mistake; as that number rises, and it will, Bush's fortunes will decline, as they are now doing. History shows that only one challenger in modern times has been behind in the AP poll on Labor Day and come back to win. That challenger was Ronald Reagan. Now Kerry is no Reagan, not by a long shot. But if people conclude that Bush was profoundly wrong to have gone to Iraq, Kerry doesn't have to be Reagan.

This campaign so far has been almost exclusively, increasingly, about the war in Iraq. On one level, Kerry's "position" is a contradictory bundle of confusion. He says the war was a mistake, but he's the guy calling for a gung-ho strategy in Fallujah to root out terrorist nests. As the president has pointed out, Kerry is claiming he can win the support of allies even as he dismisses the contributions of existing ones and calls the entire war a diversion—and even as France and Germany already have said that they aren't going to rally to our side if Kerry wins. But if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, Kerry's "vision"—or lack of it—matters less.

Many observers have said the Bush team was too smart by half in insisting that the first debate be about foreign policy and defense—that is, Iraq. I am told that this wasn't done out of arrogance or ignorance; it was done that way in part to leave them plenty of time to repair any damage if Bush screwed up. But the problem is that the White House isn't really in control of events. They can wheel in Dick Cheney to make the case for "pre-emptive war" better than the president did—but they can't control what goes on in Iraq, or, just as important, the media coverage of what goes on in Iraq.

Cheney won the veep debate on style points—he was suitably grave and grown-up—but as the event fades into obscurity it's clear that John Edwards did what he had to do: remind voters again and again that Iraq is a flat-out mess.

The focus on Iraq is harmful to the president for another, less obvious reason: it keeps him from shoring up his weaknesses on domestic issues. Most polls show the Democrats and Kerry leading on the most important of those issues: health care. Bush needs to be fighting on that turf. He was planning to do just that in Pennsylvania this week, in a speech about medical malpractice in Wilkes-Barre. But that speech was scrapped in favor of an all-out attack job on Kerry. The switch was revealing and, for Bush, ominous.

The second and third presidential debates will shift the focus—the second, part way to domestic matters; the third, all the way. Bush's aim will be to paint Kerry as an unpalatable liberal who accumulated nothing but bad Big Government ideas during his 19 years in the Senate. Kerry will answer, essentially, "I'm a Democrat." In normal times that would not be a good enough answer, but if the tide of dissatisfaction with Bush as commander in chief rises high enough, being a Democrat—in other words not George Bush—may be good enough.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6201520/site/newsweek/