Why we should listen to George Bush

All too often, his many detractors reflexively dismiss what he says and do not stop to listen. This must change
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The Independent Online

Condoleezza Rice's recent whistle-stop tour of Europe drew conflicting responses, from grudging praise to fierce criticism. One of the more peevish reactions, though, came from a Bush adviser who was visiting London at the time, and it was addressed not to Ms Rice, but to the whole weird and wonderful gamut of the British media. By referring to the new US Secretary of State as Ms Rice, or even Condi - rather than Secretary Rice or Dr Rice - were we not, he asked, expressing the hostility and sense of superiority so many Europeans feel towards the Bush administration and all its works?

Condoleezza Rice's recent whistle-stop tour of Europe drew conflicting responses, from grudging praise to fierce criticism. One of the more peevish reactions, though, came from a Bush adviser who was visiting London at the time, and it was addressed not to Ms Rice, but to the whole weird and wonderful gamut of the British media. By referring to the new US Secretary of State as Ms Rice, or even Condi - rather than Secretary Rice or Dr Rice - were we not, he asked, expressing the hostility and sense of superiority so many Europeans feel towards the Bush administration and all its works?

Not guilty, we pleaded, that was just how we British work. And we treat our own politicians and ministers the same way. Mostly, there is no Dr for Dr John Reid, the Health Secretary, no Prime Minister for Tony Blair after he is first mentioned. He becomes plain Mr, like anyone else. But while this courtier to President George Bush was technically wrong, in spirit he was not a million miles from the truth. Ever since Mr Bush (sorry - the rule applies to presidents as well) started campaigning for the White House, he has been patronised, ridiculed, even hated, by his many European opponents.

Not, it has to be said, that Mr Bush and his first-term cabinet did themselves many favours. Following a largely successful foray into Afghanistan with an all guns-blazing assault on Iraq that lacked any plan for peace was not a wise undertaking; the Europeans were right to steer clear. Snapping that you have no intention of signing up to the Kyoto treaty on climate change was another mistake: not of political substance - for there is no possibility that any current US president could persuade Congress to ratify Kyoto - but of diplomatic presentation. There were kinder ways of making the same point.

What Mr Bush cannot be accused of, however, is not meaning what he says. Words may not be his strong point - though his oratory is vastly better than it was - and for many reasons we may not like what he says or how he says it. All too often, though, Mr Bush's many detractors reflexively dismiss what he says and simply do not stop to listen. This has to change. When Mr Bush comes to Europe next week, we should have our ears on stalks.

Abroad and at home, Mr Bush is embarking on his second term with some premises that are very different from the ones that underlay his first-term ambitions four years ago. We know this, because he keeps saying so. He is just not being heard.

After his inaugural speech and State of the Union address, most commentary fixed on the two dozen or more times that he had uttered the word "freedom". The inference widely drawn was that Mr Bush was still floating in his own cloud cuckoo-land of American exceptionalism, America as a chosen and blessed nation with a responsibility to set the rules for others but no obligation to keep them.

Such high-flown sentiments, however, contribute to the necessary atmospherics of such occasions. They help compensate for the oratorical charisma that Mr Bush surely lacks. More indicative by far were the passages of these speeches and Mr Bush's subsequent pronouncements around the country where he introduced something unexpected and new. There were more deviations from the first-term norm than have been noticed.

On foreign policy, the new elements seem mostly to reflect lessons if not actually learnt, then at least understood. In his inaugural address, Mr Bush actually denied that he thought of the United States as a chosen nation. That is not the impression he gave in his first term. He also insisted that the US had no intention of imposing its form of democracy on other countries. This attracted so little attention when he said it - immediately before the Iraq elections - that he said it again, in precisely the same words, in his State of the Nation address two weeks later. Ms Rice repeated the message on her European tour, along with some well-chosen words about the US needing its allies. Maybe neither Mr Bush nor Ms Rice really meant what they were saying. Maybe they were doing it just for form's sake. What is beyond doubt, though, is that they wanted their message to be heard.

Some of the most arresting innovations are in domestic policy. Take a small one first. Mr Bush says he wants to guarantee that every defendant who is standing trial for his life is guaranteed a decent lawyer. Mr Bush, remember, has no qualms about the principle of the death penalty; he does, however, seem to have developed some about the way death penalty trials work in practice. This is a measure that could draw more support from Democrats than from his instinctive supporters among Texan Republicans.

Mr Bush's promise - or threat - to "reform" the US state pensions system, confusingly known as social security, is every bit as risky as Bill Clinton's failed effort to provide subsidised health care for all Americans. And it is possible, as his critics contend, that he is whipping up a needless panic in an effort to take the pensions system into the private sector for good and - as one theory goes - ensure a business-friendly Republican majority in both houses of Congress in perpetuity. Unlike his predecessor, Mr Bush was canny enough to leave such a sensitive reform until his second term - but this does not mean that it will pass.

More original, more radical and possibly more feasible is Mr Bush's as yet ill-defined plan to overhaul the US tax system. The idea, he says, would be to simplify the system and make it fairer. Cue, hollow laughter from all sides - from those, such as tax accountants, Internal Revenue inspectors and the rich, whose interests are bound up with the current system, and those at the bottom of the income scale who gained nothing from the tax cuts of Mr Bush's first term.

The US tax system, however, cries out for urgent reform, and it could be a safer sector for a Republican president to tackle than either the health system or state pensions because reform could attract cross-party support. If there is one branch of the US bureaucracy which scares ordinary Americans witless, it is the Internal Revenue Service. It is also far less fair than it set out to be. Basic income tax may be relatively low, but the labyrinthine tax code works to the advantage of property owners and those with the most expensive accountants and lawyers.

US politicians on the free-market right have toyed with the idea of a flatter - or even flat - tax system for years. Now, in several East European countries and Russia, such a system of a low, flat tax on income, alongside high sales taxes, can be seen to be working. It could suit the libertarian, small- government preferences of a large majority of Americans, while doing legions of tax accountants out of a job. But perhaps the only president with half a chance of enacting it would be a second-term Republican president with a gung-ho manner and a Texan's scant respect for established interests.

George Bush would surely relish the idea that he could go down in history not for a messy war in Iraq, but for making the US tax system more efficient and more just. In the meantime, we Europeans are not the only ones who need to listen to what he actually says, rather than what we expect him to say on the basis of his mismanaged first term. Poorer Americans and Democrats might also be in for a surprise.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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