The Nuance Box

The president is trapped in it.

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George Bush

President Bush has built his political career on clarity and simplicity. He’s presented himself as the teller of truths sharply stated. He and his administration saw things clearly, made crisp decisions, and were home for dinner. In the post-9/11 uproar, Bush’s clarity defined him and won him admirers. His plain-spokenness about “evil” was bracing and just what the country seemed to want. But the president’s greatest talent has suddenly become a curse. Lack of clarity bedevils Bush on immigration reform, high gas prices, and Iraq. He’s now trying to make nuanced arguments but his presidency rests on an anti-nuance platform. Now he has to actually make a subtle case, but he has neither the tools to do so nor a receptive audience.

Democrats have come to see any Bush attempt at nuance as a bait and switch. “Compassionate conservatism” sounded OK to them in 2000, but then Bush turned out to be just conservative. And conservatives see nuance as a sign of weakness, in part because Bush has taught them to view it as such. During the 2004 campaign, Bush advisers and campaign officials turned “nuance” into a pejorative. They walloped Kerry with it like a mallet. It was a point of pride for the president, who once reportedly told Sen. Joe Lieberman, “I don’t do nuance.”

Now Bush is nuancing all over the place, trying to explain to his supporters the complicated competing interests that require everyone to compromise by gathering at some “rational middle ground.” But polling suggests Bush has lost moderates and independents. The only people left who still even listen to him are the ones least likely to buy the pitch.

The president’s address to the nation on immigration Monday was measured and at times stirring. He reiterated that the proposal he supports for allowing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship is not amnesty. Conservatives, subscribing to the old Bush model, didn’t buy his shading. Forget the administration’s wordy rationalization. Illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, and they shouldn’t be rewarded for it. Bush’s attempt to mollify conservatives by putting National Guard troops on the border won him only comparisons to the too-subtle John Kerry and Bill Clinton.

Immigration is not the only problem Bush and his advisers are trying to nuance away for conservatives. The GOP faithful want spending restraint. All they get are explanations and rationalizations. Earlier this week at the American Enterprise Institute, Karl Rove touted how Bush has issued 39 veto threats to various spending measures and got his way on all of them, which Rove called an “unreported achievement.” Rove also asserted that “no president has made a bigger effort to cut entitlement spending.” But Bush failed in that effort and has yet to set up a promised panel to study the programs. “Mission Not Accomplished but Discussed!” is not the stirring stuff of leadership for loyal Bush supporters.

Complaints about conservatives who see issues in only black and white are coming even from Dick Cheney, who it was previously believed had his nuance removed during his first heart operation. Talking to Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday about conservative outrage over allowing a Dubai-based company to run some key U.S. seaports, Cheney said: “There was a very strong emotional reaction there. I can understand the emotional reaction, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the basic fundamental facts.”

Instead of using nuance, which he is no good at, perhaps Bush should try to be even blunter than he’s been in the past. He has a problem with conservatives in his base on the immigration issue. They don’t think he’s one of them, and they don’t trust him. Their distrust no doubt stirs real emotion in Bush, much as their revolts over Harriet Miers and the Dubai port deal did. Why not confront his conservative critics head on? Why not explain to them what’s at stake here, and why compromise is necessary, in the stark language that they understand and for which they once applauded him? White House advisers have told me in the past that this constituency above all can take it—they may not always agree with Bush, but they have always appreciated his straight-shooting. Bush needs to make it sharply clear that the time for sharp clarity is over.