The Emperor’s New Brain

George W. and the stupidity issue.

George W. Bush’s handling of the stupidity issue has been nothing short of brilliant. A Martian watching the last presidential debate might have concluded that this man would be well-advised not to put quite so much emphasis on mental testing. But Earth-based commentators mostly shied away from such a conclusion. The rule seems to be that if a candidate can recite half a dozen policy positions by rote and name some foreign nations and leaders, one shouldn’t point out that he sure seems a few whereases shy of an executive order.

The problem is probably laziness or complacence rather than actual inability, and journalists’ reluctance to call someone who may well be our next commander in chief a moron is understandable. But if George W. Bush isn’t a moron, he is a man of impressive intellectual dishonesty and/or confusion. His utterances frequently make no sense on their own terms. His policy recommendations are often internally inconsistent and mutually contradictory. Because it’s harder to explain and impossible to prove cold, intellectual dishonesty doesn’t get the attention that petty fibbing does, even though intellectual dishonesty indicts both a candidate’s character and his policy positions. All politicians, including Al Gore, get away with more of it than they should. But George W. gets away with an extraordinary amount of it.

On Social Security, he continues to say he’ll get the trillion dollars needed for his partial privatization “out of the surplus.” Does he not understand that the current surplus is committed to future benefits, which will have to be cut to make the numbers work? Or does he understand and not care? When he compares the “paltry 2 percent” return on Social Security with an alleged 6 percent return on private investments, does he know he’s leaving out that trillion dollars in one case and including it in the other? Or has this fact failed to penetrate despite repeated exposures?

When he calls the estate tax unfair, especially to farmers and small businesspeople, because it “taxes people twice”—meaning first when they earn the money and again when they die—is he aware that the value of farms and businesses in estates has almost never been taxed as income? Or have his advisers and fellow businessfolks deceived him on this basic point? When he criticizes his opponent for cutting taxes through the use of tax credits, then gives an example of his own tax plan in which most of the cut is through tax credits, is he fooling us? Or is someone fooling him?

When he repeatedly attacks his opponent for “partisanship,” does he get the joke? When he blames the absence of a federal patients’ rights law on “a lot of bickering in Washington, D.C.,” has he noticed that the bickering consists of his own party, which controls Congress, blocking the legislation? When he summarizes, “It’s kind of like a political issue as opposed to a people issue,” does he mean to suggest anything in particular? Perhaps that politicians, when acting politically, ignore the wishes of the people?

How does he figure? If at all.

When he repeatedly says he has a “clear vision” about the Middle East but never gives a hint what it is, should we assume he has one he’s not telling us about? When he complains that there is no general “strategy” for America’s role in the world and promises that he’ll ask his secretary of defense to come up with one pronto, should we be reassured? When he criticizes the Clinton administration for misusing American soldiers as social workers and promises to get other countries to use their soldiers that way instead, does he notice the logical flaw here?

In the debate, he declared, “I don’t want to use food as a diplomatic weapon from this point forward. We shouldn’t be using food. It hurts the farmers. It’s not the right thing to do.” When, just a few days later, he criticized legislation weakening the trade embargo on Cuba—which covers food along with everything else—had he rethought his philosophy on this issue? Or was there nothing to rethink?

When he promises that if he is elected, “we will have gag orders” on doctors and “100 percent” of people will “get the death tax,” it’s easy enough to figure out that he means we won’t have gag orders and nobody will pay the estate tax. But what does he mean when he says that “insurance” is “a Washington term”?

When he promises “to have prescription drugs as an integral part of Medicare,” does he comprehend that the exact distinction between his plan and his opponent’s is that his is not an integral part of Medicare?

When he says that local control of schools is vital, criticizes his opponent for wanting to “federalize” education, promises as president to impose various requirements on schools, complains that federal money comes with too many “strings,” calls for after-school funds to be used for “character education,” endorses a federal law forbidding state lawsuits against teachers, and so on, does he have a path through this maze of contradictions? When he promises a federal school voucher program and then deflects criticism by saying “vouchers are up to states,” is he being dense or diabolically clever?

In short, does George W. Bush mean what he says, or does he understand it? The answer can’t be both. And is both too much to ask for?