Ballot Box

Fake Forum

Bush’s economic forum belies its pretense.

This afternoon at the President’s Economic Forum in Waco, Texas, President Bush and Vice President Cheney sat side by side on the stage of a packed auditorium for more than an hour. That’s the first time they’ve been that close together for that long in public since Sept. 11. Evidently they’re no longer afraid of terrorists. What they’re afraid of is Americans.

The White House advertised the event as an exchange between Bush and the public. The Cabinet secretaries who led the forum’s eight discussion sessions let the participants do most of the talking, and in his comments at the plenary session, Bush said he was there to “listen” to “ordinary Americans.” Two of the participants who spoke onstage at the plenary session declared that they were “real people” and “regular folks.” Both were heads of companies.

Indeed, nearly everybody in the two panel discussions aired on C-SPAN today was a CEO. The others were a student at Yale’s graduate school of management; a woman who, combined with her husband’s, had five college degrees; and a pair of union bosses who wore suits and talked only about the Bush policies they supported. Like plantation owners, the employers on hand spoke for their employees. “They are so happy to have jobs,” one CEO told Bush.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill led the two televised discussion groups. They opened with standard Bush administration talking points: Some people are suffering, but the economy is sound; Bush’s tax cuts helped cure the recession; and what we need now is more tax cuts and less regulation. Then they threw it open to the participants, who suggested that Bush should rethink … nothing.

Everyone wanted more tax cuts. Everyone demanded the permanent repeal of the “death tax.” Some called for tort reform or local control of education. They argued that Bush’s policies would cure even seemingly unrelated problems. Corporate malfeasance? Faith-based initiatives would help turn that around, said a business school dean. They repeated familiar Bush sound bites (“What we’re suffering today, I believe, is an economic hangover,” said one CEO) and implicitly traced the recession and weak business ethics to the Clinton years.

The coincidence of White House spin with the beliefs of these ordinary people was most remarkable in Evans’ session on “Corporate Responsibility.” Bush’s policy on corporate corruption basically consists of moral condemnation, conspicuous punishment of fraud, and minimal regulation of bad systemic incentives. The participants in Evans’ group agreed on every point, arguing that the solution was “moral responsibility” rather than more “laws,” “regulation,” and “bureaucracy.” One CEO suggested teaching business leaders that “when you do something good, it feels good.” Another proposed that simplifying the tax code would nurture “good governance in the private sector.”

After the discussion sessions, everybody came together in the auditorium, and a representative from each group summarized its findings. Half the participants in the discussion groups appeared to be white men, but only one white man was picked to speak for his group. The representatives emphasized not only that Bush’s policies were correct, but also that everyone in their groups had concurred.

Of course, if all these people agreed with Bush beforehand, then the event wasn’t about listening. It was about selling Bush’s policies. And if the public had already agreed with Bush, the sales job would have been unnecessary. It would have made no sense for Bush to appeal to “those who are watching on C-SPAN” or for O’Neill to apologize to participants “who didn’t have an opportunity to say something for the television cameras.” In short, the operational premise of the event was that its stated premise was false: The “real people” onstage held beliefs that the real people watching it didn’t share. That ruse may have been economical. But it wasn’t very presidential, and it certainly wasn’t a forum.