Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Tough Sell

Plan for Social Security relies on an immediate, familiar Bush strategy

WASHINGTON -- The run-up to President Bush's plan to deal with Social Security is looking a lot like the run-up to his plan to deal with Saddam Hussein.

The expected Social Security shortfall has been a perennial domestic concern in much the same way that Hussein's intransigence with arms inspectors was a perennial foreign-policy concern: From the White House to Congress to think tanks, policy makers worried about it, but presidents (including Bush) felt no immediate need to deal with it.

Then Bush decided to focus on it, and suddenly a long-term concern became intense and immediate.

"Perennial concerns" are a common feature of governance. Every government in the world has had to deal with problems that persists for long periods of time (short like the last decade with Saddam, long like the centuries long conflict over the holy land). These are frustrating problems because, despite the best efforts of the most honorable men and women, they remain unfixable. Often what happens in these cases is not a permanent solution but a acceptable stalemate (e.g., the "One China" policy with respect to Taiwan). These compromises may not eliminate the problem, but they keep the problem from blooming into a full blown crisis.

That kind of solution is not acceptable to George W. Bush. Bush doesn't like stalemates. He doesn't like problems that continue to itch at the edge of his consciousness. He just wants the problem to go away.

This is an understandable position. Who among us wouldn't want those bothersome problems to "just go away"? Who among us wouldn't be tempted to use the vast powers at Bush's disposal to do just that?

But that isn't how the real world works. Attempts to make the problems "just go away" usually create even worse problems in their wake. Maturity requires understanding that you can't fix every problem. It requires accepting a certain level of disorder in order to prevent an even greater level of chaos.

If you really tried to kill every disease carrying germ in your body you'd kill yourself in the process.

Unfortunately, this kind of realism doesn't sell politically. George W. Bush's "just fix it dammit!" has much greater appeal. The problem for us in dealing with Bush is to make realism an acceptable alternative again.

Reality is a tough sell.


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