The Breakfast Table

Tax Cuts, Terrorism, and the Real Meat of Politics


OK. I’ll say it. The tax cut was venal. Venal, venal venal. I actually wrote a New York Times op-ed piece making this point when it passed. What offended me was not the idea of tax cuts. I’m for tax cuts that will invigorate the economy. But this one was so mindless. “It’s your money,” Bush kept telling people. It would have been much better to can the tax cut and use the money for Social Security reform. I completely agree.

But I’ve talked myself around to the proposition that corporatist Bush has been transformed by 9/11 into patriotic-challenge Bush. Please don’t talk me out of it. We’ll see tonight how true that is.

I hear good things about the speech. I gather there will be a mention of Iraq and Iran. The entire Cabinet agreed that the war on terror would not be complete while Saddam is in power. That puts anything on the domestic agenda to shame. I hope Bush will dispel the Carville-esque notion that foreign policy crises are just interruptions for domestic and economic policy, which is the real meat of politics. At this moment, that’s nonsense. By the way, where do you stand on the Iraq issue?

As for campaign-finance reform. I’m afraid I’m with you. The money sloshing around Washington is a big problem, but McCain-Feingold is not much of a solution. The real power lobbyists have over politicians is the power of information. Lobbyists are mature, well-informed operators who know their issue and know how Congress works. Congressional staffs are dominated by 27-year-olds making $34,000 a year who are struggling to keep the dykes from bursting. Knowledge is power, and plugging the soft money loophole won’t change that.

Let me set you up with a topic for tomorrow. Since you are among our leading experts on the Clinton mind, let me ask you, what good is intelligence? Mark Lilla just published a book on all the stupid judgments geniuses have made over the years. Along comes Bush, who lags Clinton by a good 25 IQ points, and he is a much better president—simply in terms of running an efficient White House, making quick and sure decisions on the fly, and winning the approval of the populace. I don’t mean to ask you about the character question, but rather what mental facility would you look for if you could choose the next national leader?