The Magazine

All Hat and No Cattle

From the May 17, 2004 issue: Why, despite everything, Bush should win.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"WE WON," an Iraqi militiaman in Falluja crowed to reporters, "We didn't want the Americans to enter the city and we succeeded." The Iraqis there have created a no-go zone every bit as effective as the old no-fly zone imposed by America. Better still from the locals' point of view, a few hundred "thugs," to use the president's term, were gloating as American Marines loaded their gear onto trucks to prepare for their retreat from the city. Best of all, Major General Jassim Mohammed Saleh, late of Saddam's Republican Guard and a Saddam-look-alike, rode triumphantly through town on April 30 to cheers. Whether he announced, "Mission accomplished" is not recorded.

That was too much for the Bush administration. So after handing the Iraqi militants and foreign terrorists a public relations victory, the administration announced that General Mohammed Latif, an allegedly anti-Saddam, Iraqi intelligence officer, is in, and Saleh is out. Well, not really out: Saleh will command one of the battalions of the new security force, to the consternation of the Shiites, who remember his role in crushing their 1991 uprising against Saddam. And the Marines, who had already dismantled many of their positions, were told to hang around should the Fallujans refuse to accept the Baghdad-based Latif. Given all of this confusion, it is little wonder that some observers say Saddam sits comfortably in prison, penning notes to relatives and awaiting an eventual return to power, which is just what happened the last time he was thrown into prison by a legitimate Iraqi government. One high level administration official tells me that the to-ing and fro-ing is due to a military chain of command that is in disarray, and to a breakdown of civilian control over the military.

All of this despite George W. Bush's repeated pledge not to allow a few thugs and remnants of the old regime to recapture Falluja. They will be killed or captured, he promised, as would the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who at last report had been neither, but had settled comfortably into a mosque in Najaf, protected by his militia, and in no fear that Bush's threats would result in any attempt to dislodge him.

As if these reports from Iraq were not disturbing enough, it is beginning to occur to many of the president's supporters that the Falluja climb-down is just the latest in a series of examples of what the president's Texas friends would call "all hat and no cattle"--an epithet said to have been applied by then-governor Ann Richards to Bush in an effort to classify him as a pretend cowboy who dresses and talks the part, but is pretending to be what he isn't. In New York and Vegas, the phrase is "four flusher," to denote a poker player holding a worthless hand, one card shy of a powerful flush, but bluffing in the hope that opponents will mistake his smirk for strength. In Chicago, a big-talk-no-substance guy flashes what is called a "Chicago roll," a large wad of single dollars around which a $100 bill is wrapped.

Start with the budget. The president has railed against those wasteful spenders in Congress, while presiding over the largest expansion of the welfare state since the glory days of Lyndon Johnson. Nonmilitary, non-homeland-security expenditures have skyrocketed, and are headed higher. The prescription drug program alone is likely to end up claiming 2 percent of GDP, a price considered by Karl Rove a bargain if it purchases Florida's key electoral votes. Indeed, were it not for obstructionist Democrats in the Senate, the flood of red ink would be even greater: The president can't get the Senate to pass his multibillion dollar energy bill that anyone who knows anything about energy markets says will do nothing to reduce our reliance on oil imported from the Bush family friends in Saudi Arabia.

Then we have the fiscal situation. The president quite properly nodded to the memory of John Maynard Keynes, and persuaded Congress to cut taxes so as to stimulate the economy and reduce the severity and length of the recession he inherited from the Clinton administration. But that was then and this is now. The economy is booming, growing at a rate of about 5 percent. The housing market is moving from strength to strength, the manufacturing sector is experiencing its fastest growth in five years, the job market is recovering, consumer confidence is on the rise, Wall Street is again showing big profits and paying outsized bonuses, smiles are returning to the faces of Silicon Valley options-holders, and pricing power is returning to boardrooms.