Jewish World Review August 30, 2004 / 13 Elul, 5764

Robert Robb

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Bush's key task: His reinvention as a true uniter | In 2000, Bush presented himself as a transforming force in domestic policy.

He would, first of all, reconcile modern American conservatism to the welfare state. That's what "compassionate conservatism" really meant.

But he would pre-empt the liberal agenda with conservative reforms of the welfare state, sort of a modern Disraeli.

And he would do so by making alliances across the political aisle, as he did in Texas.

The result would be a new center of gravity in American politics, with Bush leading and defining it. That would, indeed, make him a uniter, not a divider.

Events, however, have thoroughly disrupted Bush's planned redirection of the political zeitgeist.

The first was the circumstances of his election. Losing the popular vote and becoming president through a narrow Supreme Court decision didn't exactly lay a firm foundation for a transforming first term.

Nevertheless, Bush's education program, No Child Left Behind, offers a good illustration of how Bush intended to spend his first term.

Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans had decried the federal role in education and pledged to reduce it. Bush instead proposed the most extensive and intrusive expansion of the federal role since the Department of Education was formed under Jimmy Carter. And Republicans in Congress, by and large, went along.

But the larger federal role was in service to a conservative reform, testing and accountability. And Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy, went along.

That, however, was to be Bush's only success as a transforming force in domestic policy during his first term, and No Child Left Behind is in the process of imploding from its own complexity.

The second event to disrupt the Bush transformation was the recession.

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There was, and still is, a tension between social conservatives and supply-siders about tax policy.

Supply-siders want broader bases and lower rates to increase incentives for economically productive activity and reduce government's interference in the market and in people's lives.

Social conservatives want tax policies that favor families, and particularly families with stay-at-home moms.

Bush's tax cuts accommodated both. Supply-siders got lower rates, but social conservatives got a substantial increase in the child tax credit and elimination of the marriage penalty.

Bush even tried to pre-empt the liberals by substantially reducing the number of families of modest means that even have to pay income taxes, and reducing rates in the lower brackets by a larger percentage than those at the top. And indeed, a handful of Democrats did initially support the Bush tax cuts.

But the price tag on Bush's do-it-all approach was high, leaving him dependent on continued robust economic growth to keep deficits under control. Instead, he got a recession.

The third event was 9/11. Bush has said that after 9/11, he regarded himself as a war president. And in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the country certainly felt as though it was at war.

Terror: The great equalizer

Bush's firm leadership and moral clarity, and the success in Afghanistan, rallied the nation behind him, which changed the political dynamic.

I believe that President Bush has made his decisions in the war on terrorism on the basis of what he thought was in the best interests of the country. But the political consequences couldn't be ignored. A strong war president was going to be a formidable force for a nation feeling at risk, even more formidable than a transforming president.

So, the political presentation of Bush began to change.

At the same time, however, the feeling that the nation was at war began to fade. The country hadn't forgotten 9/11. Terrorism, however, has come to be seen as a problem - a serious and highly dangerous problem, but not something that requires the comprehensive mobilization of a World War II.

Then there was the fourth disruption, and the most politically significant one: the Iraq war.

Peace in our time

In 2000, Bush proposed a less adventuresome foreign and military policy. Early in his term, he sensibly disengaged somewhat from the United States trying to force-feed a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bush has said that post-9/11, he evaluated the threat from Saddam Hussein differently. And the Bush administration adopted the position that the United States wouldn't be safe from terrorism until peace, democracy and economic progress were on the ascendancy in the Middle East.

Although Bush got strong support in Congress for the use-of-force resolution, the country was never as united behind the Iraq war as it was for the military effort in Afghanistan.

The intense animosity toward Bush began to incubate in the growing anti-war movement. And now, far from being a uniter rather than a divider, Bush runs for re-election as the most partisan-polarizing figure since Richard Nixon.

The failure to find stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and the costly and deadly post-Saddam commitment in Iraq have continuously eroded general public support as well.

About as many Americans now think that the Iraq war was a mistake as think it was the right thing to do. And for a president, war is a very big mistake to make.

And so, Bush goes into this week's Republican convention not as a triumphant transforming force in domestic policy. Instead, he is a war president whose most significant military engagement is increasingly being doubted.

Of course, elections ultimately get down to: Compared to whom? The terrorist threat is still the overriding backdrop of this campaign. John Kerry has not broadly established himself as a steadfast, strong leader prepared to protect the country against this threat. And his tendency to view domestic policy as a spending contest is unsettling.

So, Bush still has a chance to define the election in his terms. But that requires reintroducing himself to the American people this week, a difficult undertaking for an incumbent president.

The two big questions

To succeed, Bush needs to do two things this week: one highly unlikely; the other will probably be attempted, but half-heartedly.

In the war on terrorism, Bush needs to somehow signal that he has learned the lessons of the Iraq war. That the American people can get Bush's resolve against terrorism without Iraq's miscalculations and commitments out of proportion to true American interests.

That's the highly unlikely one. Instead, the Bush campaign appears poised to make a full-throated defense of the Iraq war, continuing to insist that it is a seamless part of the war against terrorism.

Politically, that means that the election may very well turn not on the debates or the activities of either campaign, but on events on the ground in Iraq.

Second, Bush needs to reignite his transforming instincts and give the American people a fairly specific agenda for his second term.

This is the one that will probably be attempted half-heartedly. In the last month or so, the Bush campaign has dusted off long-dormant proposals that it touts as the "ownership society" agenda.

But repackaging old ideas doesn't meet the political need.

For example, reminding people that Bush supports individual retirement accounts as part of Social Security probably isn't enough. He said that in 2000.

If Bush wants to regain the transformational edge and change the dynamics of the election, he needs to advance a fairly specific proposal that addresses the knotty transitional costs he has thus far ignored.

The same can be said for Medicare reform and moving the country away from third-party payers for health care before it slips into a thoroughly nationalized delivery system.

That, of course, would be a high-risk strategy, and Kerry may be doing a good job of convincing the Bush campaign that cautious and steady will get the job done.

But the country needs bold, comprehensive reform. And Bush used to seem to want to provide it.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


08/20/04: Bush's burdening the Middle Class
08/13/04: For prez to win, he must change his campaigning style
08/03/04: Missing in Beantown was a sense of the art of the possible
07/26/04: Kerry inflated agenda reveals he's failed to truly make the transition from legislator to presidential candidate
07/12/04: Edwards punctuates Kerry fantasies
07/06/04: Kerry ups the ante in bid for Latino vote
06/30/04: High Court gave administration limits
06/25/04: Parallel (political) universes
06/21/04: Al-Qaida-Iraq interaction strengthens case for war
06/02/04: Gas whiners don't believe in or trust markets
05/10/04: Border reforms fail on black-market issue
05/07/04: It wasn't Bush's recession nor Bush's recovery
04/28/04: Arizona to become test market on immigration as a political issue
04/23/04: Accusations that the Bush administration has been shredding civil liberties are hyperbolic
04/16/04: Learning the limits
04/14/04: Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun
04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
03/01/04: Greenspan view scary, but Dems in denial

02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

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