7 May 2003


John Mason, Tribune column, May 10 2003

Last week, our “Top Gun”, George W Bush, landed a navy bomber on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off Long Beach, California, and swaggered across the flight deck to the cheers of assembled ship’s company.

A glorious photo op, this moment will no doubt come back to haunt us in countless campaign adverts in the year to come. Appealing to our patriotism, Karl Rove and the Bush political conseilleri will seek to anoint a “commander-in-chief” rather than to elect a mere President – the sort of domestic-policy-focused “super-governor” that former President Bill Clinton was and that many of this year’s crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls appear to be.

The same evening the President made his victory speech where he justified “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as payback for the loss of the Twin Towers. “The battle of Iraq,” he said, “is one victory in the war on terror that began on September 11.” that removes “an ally of al-Qaida” and guarantees “no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime because that regime is no more”.

He might have just admitted that they “will gain none, because we haven’t found any”, but choose instead to recycle the tired claim that Saddam, the tyrant, was somehow a party to the 9/11 attacks. Looking towards the future, the President promised “America will finish what it began” - a declaration that sounds like a formula for endless wars fought by the modern equivalents of gunboats and gurkhas.

Later in the week, the President seemed to downplay his martial rhetoric by talking up tax cuts and “jobs, jobs, jobs”, but did so against the backdrop of two Abrams tanks in Ohio and the huge hulk of a Bradley fighting vehicle in California.

Clearly wars abroad and terror alerts at home will be central to Bush’s “permanent campaign” to win the popular majority that eluded him in 2000. But the question remains: “Can this formula work in 2004?”

One answer can be gleaned whilst driving down route 375 towards Kingston, New York, where there’s a parade of hand-lettered signs that read “BOE -Save our Schools”. They refer to the decision by the local Onetora School Board to close its budgetary gap by closing one of our three elementary schools and transferring its students and staff to the other two.

But since the economies in heating, light and staff salaries will not cover the anticipated funding gap; this cut in education has been married to a hefty increase in property taxes. Down in New York City, a $3.8bn deficit translates into the loss of some forty fire stations; cuts in teachers and librarians; layoffs of police and the closing of two out of five city zoos. With a New York State deficit of close to $12.9bn and Republican governor Pataki’s refusal to consider increases in state income taxes, local townships and school districts are left with only bad choices in coming years.

In neighbouring New Jersey the deficit is running around $4bn-5bn, and Democratic governor McGrivey called in the State University presidents to announce a 5 per cent cut in their budgets for this year and 10% cut for next year. In Oregon, the fiscal squeeze has lead to the dismantling of one of the nation’s finest public schools systems, which will close one month early for lack of funds. In Missouri the governor has proposed to save on electricity by turning out every third light bulb in state offices.

Everywhere, we’re facing the closing of state psychiatric facilities and major cuts in funding for the health care of the poor and elderly.

In short, there's a slow motion fiscal wreck that’s spreading across the country with some 39 out of 50 states in bankruptcy. In California, the deficit is $34bn. In Texas, the figure is $ 9.9bn. Taken altogether the state governments are in hole for some $ 80bn, or more or less the same amount that the Bush has promised for the reconstruction of Iraq.

But this year’s federal budget promises no aid for the struggling state governments other than some reimbursements for homeland security, and tax cuts for the wealthy that will only depress the states’ ability to collect revenue in the future.

The Bush administration has decided to cure the American economy by precipitating a depression in public sector employment, and with a sort of impeccable social Darwinian logic, to pass the costs onto the States who pass them in turn onto local cities and towns. Libertarian policy wonks relish this opportunity to shrink government services and rid us of the deadhead civil servants that drag on private growth, but I doubt that few people outside of Washington rejoice in these sacrifices to the market gods.

Recent polls suggest that one half of the American population now feels that they’re worse off under the Bush than under Clinton. Most of these will vote Democrat. The fires in Baghdad may be out, but the home fires are still burning.

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