Bush's Conservative Socialism

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 17, 2008; 12:22 PM

President Bush paid a visit this morning to the high temple of American free enterprise -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- in part to give another pep talk to the nation, but mostly to reassure his immediate audience that he hasn't really become a socialist.

His central message: The $700 billion bailout plan, the partial nationalization of the nation's biggest banks, the federal takeover of insurance giant AIG and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- these are just fleeting measures to ensure a glorious future for democratic capitalism, "the greatest system ever devised."

As a general pep talk, it was typically flat and most likely ineffective. "To help the American people is the goal of this plan," Bush said. "In the long run, the American people have -- can have confidence that this economy will recover." The president has virtually no credibility left in either political or financial circles.

He is most believable these days when lowering expectations, which he also did a bit of today, stating: "It took a while for the credit system to freeze up; it's going to take a while for the credit system to thaw."

What Bush was mostly taking on, however, is the increasingly common belief that the moves of the last month signify the end of fiercely unregulated American-style capitalism. So, while taking credit for "an extraordinary response to an extraordinary crisis," he was simultaneously stressing how limited all these massive interventions really are.

"I know many Americans have reservations about the government's approach, especially about allowing the government to hold shares in private banks. As a strong believer in free markets, I would oppose such measures under ordinary circumstances. But these are not ordinary circumstances," he said.

"Some have viewed this temporary measure as a step toward nationalizing banks. This is simply not the case. This program is designed with strong protections to ensure the government's involvement in individual banks is limited in size, limited in scope, and limited in duration.

"The government's involvement is limited in size. The government will only buy a small percentage of shares in banks that choose to participate, so that private investors retain majority ownership.

"The government's involvement is limited in scope. The government will not exercise control over any private firm. Federal officers will not have a seat around your local bank's boardroom table. The shares owned by the government will have voting rights that can be used only to protect the taxpayers' investment, not to direct the firm's operations.

"The government's involvement is limited in duration. It includes provisions to encourage banks to buy their shares back from the government when markets stabilize, and they can raise money from private investors. This will ensure that banks have an incentive to find private capital to replace the taxpayers' investment, and to do so quickly."

The White House issued a " fact sheet" echoing those points.

Despite growing concern about government intervention from his base, Bush was warmly welcomed at the chamber, where executive vice president for Government Affairs Bruce Josten praised him for acting "quickly, decisively and in a bipartisan manner to prevent a systemic collapse of our financial system."

Dan Eggen writes for The Washington Post: "President Bush this morning strongly defended his efforts to cope with the global financial meltdown, saying the administration has been 'systematic and aggressive' in attempting to free up credit and shore up collapsing stock markets.

"Bush also urged Americans to be patient and allow time for the government's market interventions to work."

As Eggen also notes: "Bush, appearing forceful and at times defensive, argued that the roots of the crisis go back 'more than a decade,' suggesting that the problem began under his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press that the "main thrust" of Bush's speech "seemed aimed at conservatives and members of the public that are wary of so much government intervention into private markets. He presented himself as a free-market devotee dragged into these moves, which he defended as limited in size, scope and duration. He said there will be strong oversight and perhaps even taxpayer benefit over the long term."

Sam Youngman writes for The Hill: "The financial crisis should not be used as an excuse to raise taxes, President Bush said Friday in a thinly veiled jab at Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama."

Nevertheless, as Brad Delong writes in a Guardian opinion piece: "The Bush administration, having entered office as social conservatives, leaves office as conservative socialists, proprietors of the most sudden large expansion of the state's role in the US economy since mobilisation for the second world war."

Apres Moi . . .

Olivier Knox writes for AFP that Bush also "charged his successor with carrying out an overhaul of US financial rules. . . .

"With just 18 days before the November 4 elections, Bush said whoever enters the White House in late January will have to "ensure that this situation never happens again" by updating US regulations on banking.

"Citing US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's overhaul proposal and 'good suggestions' from others, Bush declared: 'Enacting these ideas into law must be a top priority for the next president and the next Congress.' . . .

"Bush's speech came one day before he was to host French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso at his Camp David retreat for talks on the global financial meltdown."

But as Reuters reports: "The White House on Thursday said that it did not expect any new policy announcements from the weekend Camp David meeting of President George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on the financial crisis.

"Bush had invited the two leaders to meet with him at the presidential retreat in Maryland to discuss the financial crisis because they were going to be relatively nearby attending a meeting in Canada."

Edward Cody writes in The Washington Post that Sarkozy is calling on the industrialized nations to "re-found the capitalist system."

Cody writes: "E.U. leaders, who on Thursday completed a two-day meeting in Brussels, have called for globally coordinated regulation of the financial industry, elimination of tax havens and a compensation system in which traders are not rewarded for dangerous risk-taking. . . .

"Launching a remake of this old model -- particularly in such a short time, with so many new participants -- would represent a daunting challenge at any time, but particularly during the twilight of the Bush presidency and the crisis that is still jolting banks and stock markets around the world. . . .

"After weeks of prodding, the Bush administration announced Wednesday that it was ready for an international financial conference. But it was unclear whether U.S. officials are as enthusiastic as their European counterparts about moving quickly in new directions."

Campaign Watch

John Bentley reports for CBS News that Bush continues to be a major issue on the campaign trail.

"We can't spend the next four years as we've spent much of the last eight, waiting for our luck to change," McCain said.

"As I mentioned last night to Sen. Obama, I'm not George Bush. If he wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run four years ago."

And here's Obama's response to McCain: "He said, 'I don't know why you're running against George Bush.' I said I'm not running against George Bush, I'm running against all those policies of George Bush that you support, Sen. McCain. . . .

"In three debates and over twenty months, John McCain still hasn't explained a single thing that he would do differently from George Bush when it comes to the most important economic issues we face today. Not one."

Endorsement Watch

The Obama endorsements continue to stress how urgent it is to put the Bush era behind us.

The Washington Post editorial board wonders why either candidate wants the job at this point: "Start with two ongoing wars, both far from being won; an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan; a resurgent Russia menacing its neighbors; a terrorist-supporting Iran racing toward nuclear status; a roiling Middle East; a rising China seeking its place in the world. Stir in the threat of nuclear or biological terrorism, the burdens of global poverty and disease, and accelerating climate change. Domestically, wages have stagnated while public education is failing a generation of urban, mostly minority children. Now add the possibility of the deepest economic trough since the Great Depression.

"Not even his fiercest critics would blame President Bush for all of these problems, and we are far from being his fiercest critic. But for the past eight years, his administration, while pursuing some worthy policies (accountability in education, homeland security, the promotion of freedom abroad), has also championed some stunningly wrongheaded ones (fiscal recklessness, torture, utter disregard for the planet's ecological health) and has acted too often with incompetence, arrogance or both. A McCain presidency would not equal four more years, but outside of his inner circle, Mr. McCain would draw on many of the same policymakers who have brought us to our current state. We believe they have richly earned, and might even benefit from, some years in the political wilderness."

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes that even before the financial crisis, Americans were being "confronted with profound policy choices about how and when to extricate this nation from a war it initiated, how to temper a looming recession, and whether to continue Bush administration policies that had widened the gap between rich and poor, eroded individual liberties, strengthened presidential power, shifted the Supreme Court to the right, weakened relations with our allies, and delayed action necessary to slow the warming of the planet."

Bush Punts on Gitmo

Demetri Sevastopulo writes in the Financial Times: "George W. Bush will leave a decision on whether to shut the Guantánamo Bay prison camp to his successor by not pressing Congress for legislation to help close it - even though the Pentagon drafted options to do so, former and current officials have said.

"In 2006, the president said he wanted to close Guantánamo but when Robert Gates, his defence secretary, this year produced options to close it, they were rejected by the White House. . . .

"Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, and Mr Gates could not overcome opposition from the justice department, which baulked at the idea of moving prisoners from Guantánamo to the US, which in the short-term was the only solution."

Lyle Denniston reports on Scotusblog: "The Justice Department, in a new plea Thursday for the courts to keep 17 Guantanamo Bay prisoners out of the country, said that those detainees pose a risk 'distinct to this Nation'" by virtue of "the fact that the U.S. is the country that has been holding them captive for six years."

In other words, blogs Marty Lederman, the government is saying: "These detainees would not be a threat to U.S. persons -- except that the Pentagon has unlawfully detained them at Guantanamo, incommunicado and without any justification, for more than half a decade . . . and so they naturally would be inclined to harm Americans in retaliation for such unjust treatment."

Movie Watch

Oliver Stone's new Bush movie, "W," sure is inspiring critics to ask a lot of questions.

Moira Macdonald writes in the Seattle Times: "Does anyone not yet know what they think of George W. Bush? Any holdouts still trying to decide whether our 43rd president, he of the historically low approval ratings, has been a disgrace or a paragon? Those who haven't paid attention to the masses of ink devoted to Bush's policies and personality may find some surprises in 'W.,' Oliver Stone's episodic drama about the still-sitting president. For the rest of us, we've heard it all before: the bad-boy past involving excessive drinking, the marriage to a shy librarian, the religious conversion, the domineering vice president, the hastily entered war, the weapons of mass destruction that were never there."

Steven Rea writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Apart from the respective families and friends of cast members, it's difficult to imagine anyone who'll want to run out to catch W. Is there a man or woman left in America that needs to revisit the mistakes and miscalculations behind Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 'Mission Accomplished' aircraft carrier speech, the myth of Saddam's WMDs?"

Ty Burr writes in the Boston Globe: "'W.,' the first biopic ever made about a sitting US president, is either two years too late or 15 too early. George W. Bush hardly seems to matter anymore; attention has shifted to the two men who are vying to clean up the mess his administration has left behind. As it should. Who needs more Dubya taunting when there's work to be done?"

Ann Hornaday writes in The Washington Post: "Why this movie -- a rushed, wildly uneven, tonally jumbled caricature -- and why now? Why, when Americans and citizens around the globe are still coming to terms with the implications of so many Bush policies, would they want to pay money at the box office to see what amounts to an extended 'Saturday Night Live' skit?

"Why, when so many people are familiar with the vignettes that drive the episodic narrative of 'W.' -- the Time Bush Choked on a Pretzel, the Time Bush Quit Drinking After a Brutal Hangover, the Time Bush Invaded Iraq -- would they want to see it all reenacted again, albeit through Stone's occasionally stingingly satirical lens? . . .

"What has 'W.' given us to better understand the person who will surely go down in history, if not as America's best or worst president, as his era's most consequential? . . .

"Why would we want to see the movie when we're still in the movie -- and when it looks like we'll be in it long after its protagonist has made his exit?"

Stone's Explanation

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that "Stone is convinced that he still has a fantastic story to tell, the details of which he claims are still unknown by many Americans. 'He's a character that you couldn't make up, bigger than fiction,' Stone says. . . . 'He's bumbled his way into this mess -- into this extraordinary nightmare. Frank Capra could not make this up. He's the reverse of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' '

"'It's a great story, for Chrissake,' Stone goes on. 'Mark Twain would tell it. Dickens would tell it. How could you ignore this guy? They ask me about Obama and McCain every day. . . . God, these are pygmies compared to what he has done. They are going to live in his shadow for a while.'"

As for the response from Bush's defenders, Abramowitz writes: "Stone's obvious interest in the psychological roots of his character, a fascination Bush and his father famously detest, has Bushworld ready to trash a project few have actually seen. 'From what I have seen from the script and from I have seen of the trailers, this is how the lunatic asylum inmates would write it,' says Karl Rove, Bush's onetime political adviser. 'It is so laughable to suggest that the actions of this president are driven by a dysfunctional relationship with his father.'

"Asked for her reaction, White House press secretary Dana Perino says only that 'The Post's readers will understand that we have more important things to do than comment on this ridiculous movie.'"

'Remarkably Accurate'

Wayne Slater writes in the Dallas Morning News that "by taking real moments and reconfiguring them in artificial ways, Mr. Stone has created something Texans who saw Mr. Bush close-up will recognize as a remarkably accurate portrait. . . .

"[F]or long-time observers -- those of us who spent time around Mr. Bush in his State Capitol office and his various campaigns -- it's a dead-on portrayal: The exuberant cowboy governor throwing his boots up on his desk, cursing colorfully, resisting policy detail, peering over his half-glasses with an impish grin, half CEO and half frat rat. . . .

"Bush political adviser Karl Rove, panning the film, challenged the movie president's use of the f-word, telling The Wall Street Journal he couldn't remember ever hearing that from Mr. Bush in 35 years.

"Others of us remember hearing it often."

Slater also notes: "When Mr. Bush stumbles over a question at a White House news conference from a reporter who asked him to identify his biggest mistake, it appears Mr. Stone has embroidered the scene to lampoon the hapless president.

"'Hmm. I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it,' the actor says in a painful close-up.

"'I'm sure historians will look back and say, "Gosh, he could have done it better this way or that way." You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hasn't yet.'

"As it turns out, the scene is accurate word for word, taken directly from the transcript of a news conference."

Iraq Watch

Matthew Lee and Jennifer Loven write for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration has launched a top-level lobbying campaign to persuade skeptical U.S. lawmakers and disapproving Iraqi politicians to support a security agreement governing the continued presence of American troops in Iraq.

"Although congressional approval is not legally required, U.S. lawmakers' support is considered crucial for an agreement to go forward. In Iraq, where the deal must pass through several complex layers of approval, the going is considered even tougher.

"Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, are among those reaching out to key members of the House and Senate. Rice also is pressing senior Iraqi leaders to accept the deal.

"The agreement includes a timeline for U.S. withdrawal by 2012 and a crucial but unpopular compromise that gives Iraq limited ability to try U.S. contractors or soldiers for major crimes committed off-duty and off-base, officials said Thursday. . . .

"[Pentagon press secretary Geoff] Morrell would not provide details of the draft, but acknowledged there are withdrawal timelines. He said those dates 'are goals that . . . will only be followed if the conditions on the ground provide for it.'"

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed senior lawmakers yesterday on a draft agreement that covers U.S. forces in Iraq, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepared to submit the document to its first political test in Baghdad. . . .

"U.S. officials appeared unsure whether the terms agreed upon by negotiators would gain approval from Iraqi political and religious leaders -- who have insisted publicly on absolute sovereignty -- before the current United Nations mandate expires on Dec. 31. . . .

"Far less controversial matters have taken months to move through the Iraqi legislative process, if they moved at all."

A Syrian Gambit?

Jack Khoury writes for Haaretz: "U.S. President George W. Bush has apparently offered his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, to press Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights if Damascus promises to cut its relations with Iran, the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jareida reported on Friday.

"According to the report, Bush made the offer in a handwritten letter transferred to Assad by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. . . .

"Bush is keen on implementing the deal before the upcoming U.S. elections, said the newspaper, in order to significantly advance the peace process before the end of his term."

Vice President Watch

Barton Gellman writes in The Washington Post with an executive summary of the Cheney Rules for the vice presidency. They include: "fly under the radar"; "winning is easy when the other side doesn't know about the game"; "you can't be fired"; "don't write it down"; and "watch the boss's diet".

First Dog Bites Man

Beverly Keel writes for the Daily Tennessean: "Jake Speck was the talk of the White House on Monday."

Speck "was among the cast members of Broadway's Jersey Boys who were invited to perform in the East Room at a dinner for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Hosted by the Bushes, the dinner had a guest list that included the Cheneys, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Rudy Giuliani and more than one Supreme Court justice.

"During soundcheck, one of the Bushes' dogs, a very friendly looking Scottish terrier named Miss Beazley, entered the room.

"'So I went up to her and put my hand by her mouth,' Jake, 27, says. 'She barked and chomped right down on my finger. It started bleeding a little bit. It wasn't that big of a deal.'

"Alarmed White House staffers took Jake to the president's doctor for a close examination, and a few hours later, Jake received a handwritten note of apology from Laura Bush, who had asked her aides repeatedly about his condition.

"When the cast entered the Blue Room for a private meeting with the president, President Bush said, 'Which one of you is the one the dog bit?'

"'I was like, "That's me,"' Jake said. 'He apologized profusely and said he was very embarrassed and [jokingly] had all of her teeth pulled out, so don't worry about it because it wouldn't happen again."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on McCain's monkeywrench, Ed Hall on McCain's toilet, Bruce Plante and Rex Babin on "not President Bush."

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