Why Bush Angers Liberals

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Conservatives are alarmed about the tone of our political debate. Interviewed last week in TIME, Fox TV talk-show host Bill O'Reilly trumped the standard definition of chutzpah — a man who kills his parents, then pleads for mercy as an orphan — by complaining that the country is "as polarized as it's ever been in the history of the Republic." In TIME two weeks ago, essayist Charles Krauthammer expressed astonishment at the level of antagonism toward President Bush among liberals. Newly anointed New York Times columnist David Brooks has deplored both the viciousness and the shallowness of today's politics, compared with the Athenian atmosphere he recalls in the 1980s.

Oddly, Brooks and Krauthammer offer nearly opposite diagnoses of today's caustic tone. Krauthammer says liberals are angry because Bush has turned out to be a more ideological and more effective President than they expected. The anger, in other words, is over substance. Brooks, by contrast, complains that earlier disputes over cultural values and ideology have molted their substance and turned into rival but trivial assessments of the President as a person.

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So why are liberals so angry? Here is a view from inside the beast: it's Bush as a person and his policies as well. To start, we do think he stole the election. Yes, yes, we're told to "get over it," and we've been pretty damned gracious. But we can't help it: this still rankles. What rankles especially is Bush's almost total lack of grace about the extraordinary way he took office. Theft aside, he indisputably got fewer votes than the other guy, our guy. We expected some soothing bipartisan balm. There was none, even after 9/11. (Would it have been that hard to appoint a Democrat as head of Homeland Security, in a "bring us together" spirit?)

We also thought that Bush's apparent affability, and his lack of knowledge or strong views or even great interest in policy issues, would make him temperate on the ideological thermometer. (Psst! We also thought, and still think, he's pretty dumb — though you're not supposed to say it and we usually don't. And we thought that this too would make him easier to swallow.) It turns out, though, that Bush's, um, unreflectiveness shores up his ideological backbone. An adviser who persuades Bush to adopt Policy X does not have to be worried that our President will keep turning it over in his mind, monitoring its progress, reading and thinking about the complaints of its critics, perhaps even re-examining it on the basis of subsequent developments, and announce one day that he prefers Policy Y. This does not happen. He knows what he thinks, and he has to be told it only once.

This dynamic works on facts just as it does on policies, making Bush a remarkably successful liar. This too is unexpected. There seemed to be something guileless and nonneurotic about Bush when we first made his acquaintance. It was the flip side of his, um, dimness and seemed to promise frankness if nothing else. But guess what? Ignorance and lack of curiosity are terrific fortifications for dishonesty. Bill Clinton knew that he had had sex with that woman and had to work hard to convince himself that he hadn't. Bush neither knew nor cared whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or close connections to al-Qaeda when he started to say so, and once he started, mere lack of evidence was not going to make him stop.

Just this week, responding to the brouhaha about the alleged White House outing of an undercover CIA agent, Bush declared that he takes leaks very seriously and deplores them. Liberals across America screamed into their TV sets, "But that leak was in the papers two months ago, and you did nothing about it until the fuss started last weekend!" If Bush could hear them, he might furrow his brow in puzzlement and say, "And your point is?" Steeped as liberals are in irony, it took us a while to learn what a powerful tool an irony-free mind can be.

Screaming powerlessly at a defenseless television set is a metaphor for the sense of powerlessness that unites these elements in liberal rage. In the 1980s, liberals nursed the fear that we really might be dwelling in an irrelevant cul-de-sac outside of the majority American culture. That kept us sullen and mopey. Today we feel that our side got the most votes, and it didn't matter. This man then sold a war to the country based on fictions, and it didn't matter. It didn't even matter if he hadn't made the sale, since he mainly asserted the right to invade another country. And Krauthammer is right: we didn't think he had the heart or the brains for anything like this. It's maddening.

Krauthammer is wrong, though, to suppose that anger is driving liberals to self-defeating ideological extremes. The mood is not suicidal. It is comically pragmatic. The comment you hear most often about the Democratic primary race is, "All I care about is sparing the country four more years of that &*!!@#$%!" It's sweet when liberals try to be cynical and hard-headed. If I were a conservative, I wouldn't be too worried.