Column: Bush using nice-sounding phrases to cover partisan choices

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Fiscal restraint.

Common sense.

These are just a couple of phrases we’ve been hearing from President Bush and others in the Bush administration this past week.

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Fiscal restraint was the word used to describe cutting grant money for communications equipment for emergency services for communities throughout the country, among other things. So the confusion caused when fire departments, police departments and paramedics can’t easily communicate with each other during disasters &045; like the collapse of the World Trade Center &045; will continue to be a problem.

But fiscal restraint apparently does not mean cutting spending on the President’s pet missile defense program. It does not describe his attitude toward the tax cuts that are one of the major reasons for declines in government revenue.

It makes me wonder what sorts of criteria are used to decide when &uot;fiscal restraint&uot; is appropriate. Confusion caused by miscommunication is a real problem for those communities &045; like New York City &045; that are on the front lines of our war with terrorists. What threat does missile defense protect us from, exactly? What justifies the billions spent on a program that would have done nothing to stop the Sept. 11 attacks and will do nothing to defeat our terrorist enemies? How does taking less in taxes from multi-millionaires and billionaires help ordinary working Americans?

It appears that fiscal restraint here really means cutting spending only for those things some people don’t like, but spending lots of money on things they do &045; like armed satellites and tax cuts. Given how the words were used last week, I fear that phrases like &uot;fiscal restraint&uot; probably will be used to describe additional cuts to all of that pesky &uot;domestic spending&uot; that people like Bush have never liked &045; Americorps, unemployment benefits, income subsidies for the very poor and health care for pregnant women.

Common sense, on the other hand, was used to describe the current administration’s approach to forest management and fire prevention. It’s only common sense, according to the President, that lumber companies be allowed to cut down more trees in national forests. It’s common sense to cut back on environmental oversight of those logging operations, and it’s also common sense to make it harder to use the legal system to force the government to obey environmental laws.

But as with the first phrase, the use of the words seem only to apply to certain kinds of &uot;sense,&uot; not all of it &uot;common.&uot; For example, common sense doesn’t mean letting forests take care of themselves. And neither does common sense explain why lumber companies are going to be interested in bushes and debris that they can’t make into anything; they want the big trees, not the scrub at ground level. It doesn’t mean paying attention to the ways the first Americans learned &045; over thousands of years &045; how to live in and care for those forests.

And this question needs to be asked: Why should firefighters risk their lives to protect the property of people &045; who are neither foresters nor farmers &045; who choose to live so far away from civilization? Approaching the fire danger problem with &uot;common sense&uot; should mean telling homeowners that living in a wilderness means paying for protection from certain risks out of their own pockets.

As with fiscal restraint, common sense here seems to refer to only those ideas that fit with a certain ideology: corporate America has all the answers we need; government just needs to get out of the way.

It’s all a matter of semantics &045; of what words mean. And it’s also more evidence of politicians playing with words, the kind of play that is more about manipulation and trickery than having fun.

The health of a democracy depends on the ability of people to understand what the leaders we elect are talking about. I get wary when I hear politicians use sensible language &045; phrases like &uot;fiscal restraint&uot; and &uot;common sense&uot; &045; to describe and promote policies that are really being lifted up among all options for ideological reasons. If these words &045; and a whole dictionary filled with others &045; are going to serve as a proper explanation for decisions in Washington, then they need to be used consistently and honestly, not as a smokescreen for ideology.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.