Sweeps Week War

BY Ana Marie Cox

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Iraq is meant to distract us from the rest of Bush’s dismal programming schedule.

The latest pronouncement by our Cowboy-in-Chief about the possibility of war dipped into the president’s vocabulary of the vernacular: “The game is over.”

Could the administration be looking to popular culture for more than just catch phrases? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out a new development in television that is disappointing, inevitable and curiously reminiscent of Bush’s governing strategy.

The Journal reported that “sweeps week,” long the haven of stunt programming designed to breathe momentary life into established series (with such attention-getting stunts as celebrity guest stars and the opening of various tombs and vaults), has become a sad, self-contained mini-season all its own—designed to expire ingloriously after the advertising rates are secured. Upcoming during this February’s sweeps week: ABC’s Are You Hot?—a contest that adopts the ruthless ego-bashing celebrity panel of judges of FOX’s American Idol, but eliminates any need for talent.

Also coming in February, if you believe the president’s boast of “weeks, not months,” is a sensationalist sequel to the Gulf War. I predict high ratings.

An organized PR offensive is already underway. The administration has placed key officials not just on the usual round of Sunday chat shows, but in the warm embrace of local newscasters. Donald Rumsfeld chatted with the anchors of affiliates in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis. Paul Wolfowitz oozed charm with the folks of New York and San Francisco. In Cleveland, WJW-TV came after Wolfowitz with the following: “Mr. Secretary, you’re the expert on Iraq. You’re the guy the president calls for information here. What is the strongest case [Colin Powell made] in front of the United Nations?”

Not exactly a hard-hitting question. But the depressing spectacle of the sweeps week war hides more than a unilateralist will to empire. The war and its accompanying show, good idea or bad, distract us from the rest of Bush’s dismal programming schedule. Worst of all is the Bush budget, a $2.23 trillion-dollar deficit-expanding bonanza of tax cuts, reduced social spending and defense-contractor-pleasing.

The bad news is about what you’d expect. There’s the bald-faced retreat on several programs the president proudly trotted out as recently as last month. At a visit to the National Institutes of Health, Bush lauded a “bioshield” initiative to guard against bioterrorist attacks, but NIH will have a difficult time enacting any new programs under a budget that caps its spending at current levels.

Recently, Housing Secretary Mel Martinez told homebuilders that the administration would put $200 million toward boosting homeownership by low-income families, but the new budget cuts more than twice that amount—$574 million—out of a program for refurbishing existing public-housing units.

And the $15 billion in African AIDS relief Bush proposed in the State of the Union address matches the cuts made from a separate development-aid initiative, a move that prompted one activist group to complain of “robbing Peter to pay Peter.”

But this zero-sum math pales next to the much larger issue no one in Washington is seriously addressing: How the proposed spending and massive tax cuts would move the country toward bankruptcy. By 2050, according to the administration’s own numbers, the United States will incur a debt that’s 250 percent of GDP. So much for another one of the president’s State of the Union promises: “We will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations.”

Economists and oracles, including Alan Greenspan, are mystified by the president’s outrageous contention that a deficit of a few trillion dollars is exactly what the economy needs. Addressing the Senate Banking Committee, Greenspan dispensed with his usual cryptic pronouncements and plainly stated, “We have to make sure the fiscal vehicle does not run off the road.” Economist J. Bradford Delong criticizes the plan in clearer terms: “I really cannot understand why anyone would do this.”

To those who simply point to the pattern of the Reagan years, where huge deficits justified gutting social programs, one can only reply that at least Reagan was honest about his intent. Bush continues to make empty promises about mentoring programs, childcare and housing.

The White House’s self-serving neglect of the lessons of the recent past parallels the precarious state of the president’s popularity right now, war or no war. While outright approval ratings are holding steady at around 60 percent, nearly half of those polled disapprove of how he’s handling the economy.

The fiscal irresponsibility exhibited by the administration has even Republicans scratching their heads. The Washington Post reports that the White House’s congressional allies are balking at some of the budget’s centerpieces, including the elimination of taxes on stock dividends.

At a hearing with White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels, Minnesota Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht declared, “I must say, this is a tough pill to swallow.” Gutknecht went on: “It’s very difficult for us to justify borrowing an extra million—oh, I’m sorry, an extra trillion, or two trillion, whatever the number is, from our grandchildren—in order to say yes to all these national priorities.”

The presidency of George W. Bush has been built upon an unspoken desire not to repeat the mistakes of his father. But seeing the debacle over the budget unfold, one can only hope that in 2004 we’ll be watching a re-run from 1992.

Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Wonkette, one of the most popular political blogs on the web. She is also the former editor of the dearly departed suck.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin.

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