Editor’s Note: Do you think a presidential candidate could be elected if he told us the truth, and it was unpleasant? I doubt it ... we’re Americans, and we don’t like to be inconvenienced by anything, especially our politicians. That’s why George W. Bush’s poll numbers remain so high — he’s let us know that we can spend money like drunken sailors, taxes can go down, the economy will be strong and eventually we’ll balance the budget ... concurrent with the Second Coming. When Reagan suggested it, W’s father called that “voodoo economics,” but George II calls it a responsible platform for 2004. God help us all.
No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
— H.L. Mencken
September 11 presented our fat and happy nation with an opportunity to rise above the self-interest and materialism that have characterized our generation as we’ve evolved from spoiled 60s hippies to spoiled 80s yuppies to self-absorbed, middle-aged baby boomers. As the flags unfurled, and the rescue workers toiled tirelessly at Ground Zero, millions of ordinary Americans contributed more than $1 billion to charities for the victims. But this spirit of selflessness proved to be unsustainable.
To shield the airlines from crippling lawsuits, the government established a fund to pay the victims’ families. However, just as America has lost the world’s good will since 9/11, some of the victims’ relatives began jeopardizing the sympathy of their fellow citizens. It wasn’t long before many of the victims’ families were complaining about the amounts of money being offered — an average of $1.6 million apiece — as if 9/11 were a traffic accident from which they’d gotten whiplash.
Americans believe that, when something bad happens, someone has to reimburse us for it: It’s part of our innate sense of entitlement. And if al-Qaida can’t be sued, it’s whoever has the deepest pockets. With the filing deadline for compensation approaching, many families have decided the airlines are the cash cows, and once the tort lawyers start circling, it’s business as usual.
Our president vowed that the war on terror wouldn’t be politics as usual, but the politicians only briefly put aside their partisan agendas. The president also declared that this would be a war like no other in our history. This has actually turned out to be true, in that it’s a war that asks little from any American who isn’t in the military.
In the aftermath of 9/11, when people on the home front might have been inspired to sacrifice for the war effort, Mr. Bush never asked. Instead, we were encouraged to behave as if nothing had happened — so the terrorists wouldn’t win — and to buy things to reinvigorate the economy. We keep hearing that Sept. 11 has changed everything, but our leaders are doing everything in their power to ensure that few in the voting public feel this change.
Mr. Bush has said that we’re fighting in Iraq so we don’t have to fight here at home. This has also turned out to be true. During World War II, Americans lived with shortages and voluntary blackouts, and even gas was rationed; however, we’ve been asked to show our patriotism by buying bigger Hummers.
So we complain about prices at the pump, while spending more petro dollars than ever, money our “friends,” the Saudis, use to fund more terrorists. The only sacrifice the administration has asked for involves wildlife refuges in Alaska, where the inconvenienced parties are the caribou … who won’t be voting in 2004.
A sovereign nation should be able to control access to its territory, but we’re not even trying to stem the tide of illegal immigration. Especially in wartime, potential terrorists should be detained at our borders, but with the Hispanic vote in play, neither party is eager to eschew politics as usual. And too many employers need cheap labor to clean their customers’ swimming pools and serve us our lattes.
Grey Davis, the soon-to-be ex-governor of California, recently signed a bill allowing undocumented aliens to obtain drivers licenses, which will make terrorists free to move about the country more easily. Before he began shamelessly pandering to Spanish-speaking voters in his recall election, Davis had twice vetoed this same legislation.
Politics as usual? In 1984, Walter Mondale suggested we might need to raise taxes, which pretty much ended his chances of becoming president. On the eve of Gulf War I, Bush the Elder raised taxes to stem a red ink tsunami, so we sent him packing. This Bush isn’t about to risk offending voters by asking them to make the sacrifice of actually paying for Gulf War II. Instead, he’s opted to put Iraq “on the credit card” and not even pay the minimum.
Of course, how can the Republicans ask ordinary Americans to sacrifice when they’re continuing a massive giveaway program for their rich constituents that’s ratcheting up already record-breaking deficits? So committed is our president to his agenda of making the wealthy wealthier that he scoffs at the reality working families live with — that you can’t continually reduce your income, while spending cash you don’t have and lavishing money on rich friends who don’t need it.
Families like the Bushes and Cheneys won’t be sacrificing increased tax payments to support the war on terror. However, their progeny may have to pay up when the bill for our unfunded spending spree comes due, perhaps late in the Jenna Bush administration. Of course, the Cheneys will be able to afford it: As David Letterman observed concerning the $87 billion price tag for Iraq, Americans should remember, when they’re making out their checks, “there are two l’s in Halliburton.”
To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, “No one ever lost an election underestimating the selflessness of the American public.” And our president still has the poll numbers to prove it.
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