Left-wing Bush opponents have spent six years fuming about an exquisitely irksome trait in George W. Bush's character: He's not really a man of the people! He's actually really rich and stuff! Now, they're so eager to join the frenzy over the Dubai Ports World deal that they're not even savoring the moment they've been praying for: For the first time, Bush has been completely out-populisted. And by Democrats, for Christ's sake!
If there's one thing the DPW dustup proves, it's that Bill Clinton really was a better Man of the People than George W. Here's why:
There's a very short list of concepts the president needs to spell out:
• The DPW deal is just a contract for services—the Arabs are not going to own our ports.
• This doesn't involve port security, and if opponents think there's a security risk they haven't provided any evidence for that.
• It's in our best interest to be engaging "moderate" Arab business types like our friends in the UAE, where gay marriage is legal and every citizen is the CEO of a private company that does nothing but manufacture "I Love America" bumper stickers.
•Yes, it seems scary to be turning over port services to this foreign company, but actually this kind of transnational deal carries many benefits, among them blah blah blah…
• It's not true that foreigners will be doing all our port services. All the employees will still be Americans. In fact, I've had my brain trust run the numbers and calculated that this deal will actually create umpteen new jobs.
• The fact that DPW is state-owned isn't substantially different from, say, Continental buying some planes from the heavily subsidized Airbus.
• And so on.
It's a simple bunch of talking points, but it's become very difficult to get out there because we're in the heat of a full-scale populist panic, and against a populist panic only a golden tongue can argue logic. Bush has been caught totally flat-footed. He tried first to play the race card—a tactic that worked back in 2003, when skeptics made the absurd, bigoted, America-hating claim that Iraq's factions might be just as happy attacking each others' mosques as voting for a new future together. But the race card doesn't work because a) it's not 2003 anymore, b) a general opposition to Arabs is a badge most Americans would wear proudly by this point, and c) go hold hands with another oil sheik, Gaylord.
His next gambit was what they call in The Sunshine Boys the A-1 material: I'm the President, so it's my way or the highway. That argument's worth nothing because what, after all this time the first veto you're going to use is in favor of some screwy deal to give away our country to a bunch of Arabs?
So that leaves only rhetorical Plan C: Terrorist terrorist terrorist, war war war, I've made my decision and these questions aren't helpful. You can see why that one doesn't work.
Who could get out of this fix?
I'll tell you who: NAFTA-era Bill Clinton, that's who! Explaining stuff like this is what Bill Clinton lived for. Just think back to that Clintonian love of factoids, that congenial explanation of the benefits that you, the listener, will directly receive, that enthusiastic drive to get you to share the president's love of policy minutiae. Clinton was great at this stuff because, whatever else he was, he was a man of the people. He understood (as Bush does) the benefit of a barrier-free market that might leave, say, Dubai Ports World providing services to American harbors. And he knew that populist panics are stupid and almost always wrong. But unlike Bush, he realized that populist panics come from deep within people's hearts, and that you have to respect that. (It just sweetens the deal that this time the populist panic is being driven by another Clinton, that Around the Way Girl in the Yankees cap who always has her finger firmly up the ass on the pulse of the Average American.)
Will Bush weather this storm? All signs say yes: A PR machine that can turn Sunday's The Vice President had "one beer" and then shot a guy story into Wednesday's Why is the media picking on the Vice President and why hasn't the guy who was shot apologized already story can do pretty much anything. Allahu Akbar, DPW! Welcome to our ports!