Many reports from the U.S. have said: With all his troubles — Katrina, Iraq, the economy — the last thing George Bush needs is criminal charges against top aides like Karl Rove (expected today in the Plame-Wilson spy-leak investigation). Yet, you could read this in reverse: With such problems, it may be nice to have a diversion to take people’s minds off serious issues. Hey, maybe Karl set it all up. But I doubt it. I think the truth is a bit odder.

That’s because real debate over basic foreign and domestic issues is off the table in the United States. It is precluded by the famed “bipartisan consensus,” whereby both parties plus major players in business, media etc. concur fundamentally even if they differ on details. That has been true with Iraq and the economy.

But the consensus is constantly threatened by the fact that most U.S. citizens disagree with it. For instance, 65 per cent want health care for all, even if it means higher taxes; 86 per cent want a higher minimum wage; 59 per cent think the Iraq war was a mistake and 63 per cent want troops partly or fully out. It’s true that more Americans (30 per cent) call themselves conservative than liberal (18 per cent), but that’s just labelling. On economic, foreign policy and “non-moral” issues, they are to the “left” of their elites.

This is strangely like the situation in the old Soviet bloc, where most people opposed the regimes but couldn’t say so via “official” channels. Yet, dissent so strong needed an outlet, and it emerged in arenas such as theatre or film. That is, indirectly and metaphorically. Let me suggest that, in the U.S., opposition to the official “line” is allowed to vent through anger at minor outrages committed by the forces that impose the bipartisan consensus.

If you didn’t like the Nixon Vietnam policy, you could go after him for a petty B and E (Watergate). He was ousted; the policy stayed. With Bill Clinton, nail him for playing kissy-face at the office. The Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan era didn’t quite “take” because it wasn’t trivial enough, proving the rule. And now, in a time of strong, ill-expressed dissent over a bungled war and staggering economy, there’s a CIA-outing mini-scandal.

It’s what you get when you have a large stifled undercurrent to the left of an official right-wing political culture. Middle-class families with the best private health plans are declaring bankruptcy because of deductibles and co-payments for sick kids. Living standards are in decline: Pay, vacations and benefits are shrinking — even under “good” union contracts. These crises get reported but not discussed or debated. Those in power aren’t challenged on them.

Instead, you’re allowed to go after poor (literally) Private Lynndie England for the mess in Iraq, or pathetic Mike Brown of the federal emergency agency for the mess in New Orleans. If you want to attack those at the top, though, it has to be for some minor spy botch, which is in a complicated way connected to Iraq. When real politics is off the agenda, it has to sneak in the back door by way of ethics, corruption, dating or spying.

I mean: Exposing a spy? Is that so awful? Spying is a weird activity, by definition illicit, often illegal, and inherently dubious. That why it’s secret! I’ve read lots of punditry explaining that it matters because it’s “really” about the President lying to the people about an illegal war etc. Well, that’s my point. Why can’t they talk about him lying or the validity of his war? Why must they do it indirectly, and end up having a debate about what it’s really about?

“Changing the subject will not work,” said Washington über-insider David Gergen on Bush attempts to evade the spy scandal by carrying on, um, normally. “Giving more speeches about Iraq or the state of the economy doesn’t have the weight that action does.”

But just a minute, Dave. What if the point is to keep attention off Iraq, the economy and other debatable elements of the bipartisan consensus? Such as? Such as George Bush’s threat, this week, to attack Syria. Or plans this week to cut health care for the poor, food stamps and student loans. Then it does work — by not working. You catch the cartoon, you miss the feature.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.