WASHINGTON — For years now the Republican Party has put forth a fairly simple proposition about government: It would function better if it were run more like a business. It would be more accountable. It would concentrate on the bottom line. It would be more results-oriented.
This has always been an oversimplification, of course. Government can never run completely like a business because it isn't a business. The goals of nations are grander and more altruistic than those of corporations. Governments, unlike businesses, cannot simply discontinue services if they are cost ineffective - everyone needs access to post offices and schools. And government has never advertised its services by showing people yelling "wassup!" at one another - at least not yet.
But the results-focused nature of business has become a large part of American political culture - or at least political dialogue. And that's not really a bad thing. Despite its weaknesses, the business model can provide voters a nice template with which to look at elections. You are the boss in a democracy. Your elected representatives serve at your whims and they are up for performance review every few years.
With that in mind, what do we see when we open up the personnel file of our national CEO-in-chief? It's somewhat troublesome.
Under the domestic affairs tab we have some issues. Our CEO may have inherited a recession, but what has he done about it? He cut taxes to keep the economy going. Fair enough. But were those cuts, which were heavily weighted toward the wealthy, the best call? Debatable. And once they were enacted, was it really smart to push through another set of cuts even while refusing to make the cuts necessary to balance the budget? We are now looking at a corporate ledger that is $450 billion in the red, and the CEO now wants to make those cuts permanent, increasing the deficit to a projected $500 billion for as far as the eye can see - if Congress holds down spending.
On education, he pushed through reforms that he promised would raise standards for all students. But under the wording of that law, each state sets its own standards and could lower standards if necessary to keep money coming. Worse still, he never put the money into the system that he himself called for under the law.
At home, in the "war on terror," the government has done little to increase the monitoring of cargo shipping containers and is short of border agents, leaving dangerous security holes.
The foreign affairs tab is more troubling. While our CEO's initial reaction to the terrorist attacks of 2001 was necessary and admirable, the efforts in Afghanistan are at best an "incomplete" on his record as that country seems increasingly unstable. In Iraq, which diverted resources from Afghanistan, he took the US to war under information that proved wrong (possibly his fault) and greatly miscalculated the Iraqis' reaction to US occupation (surely his fault), which looks as if it will go on indefinitely regardless of who ends up in the White House.
This is not the kindest reading of President Bush's term, but it's not the harshest either. And, all things considered, if this were the personnel file in front of the American people, and they truly applied the standards of corporate America, would they conclude this job holder deserved another four years?
Deficits from surpluses? Botched life-and-death decisions? CEOs have been fired for much less. So seeing as we're all good, business-savvy board members of America Inc., why does the president enjoy a lead in the polls? Because, in the end, for all the chatter about how we want to run government like a business, many of us don't want it to.
For many Americans it isn't really the Bush record or policies that matter, it's that great equalizer: the Bush persona. Even when people don't agree with the president, they often say they believe he's sincere. And in a world full of pseudo-events, pseudo-people, and even pseudo-places, that can be pretty compelling.
Many voters have made the decision that, after looking at the options, they don't mind seeing Mr. Bush's face staring back at them from the front page of the newspaper every day through 2008. He may be wrong, sometimes on serious things, but he believes he's doing the right thing and he follows his heart. And in troubled times they find that refreshing. In other words, they simply like him - or at least the image of him as reflected in the media. It's hard to know someone you have never met.
That's not exactly news. Bush's likability is well known. What's interesting is that, despite all the talk, if Bush gets reelected it won't really be the triumph of business culture at all. It will mean that early 21st-century American politics follows the rules of the country's other dominant culture: the culture of celebrity.