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Jewish World Review May 31, 2001 / 9 Sivan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Now Bush must really
reach out to Hill Dems


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AS the recent tax fight makes plain, President Bush has failed to take the partisan poison out of Washington.

Now that his party is set to lose control of the Senate, he's got to start meeting - and conciliating - with Democrats, starting with Sen. Thomas Daschle (S.D.).

Bush is not solely to blame for the toxic climate, of course. Democrats miss no opportunity to blast Bush as the servant of special interests.

The Democrats may sound shrill and negative, but the latest Zogby poll indicates that they have managed to keep Bush's job-disapproval rating above 40 percent.

Bush's approval rating is a strong 55 percent, up a few points from Zogby's last poll taken amid widespread criticism of his environmental policy. His disapproval rating is 42 percent, down 2 points.

Bush fares better on a personal level, with 62 percent of voters thinking favorably of him and only 33 percent perceiving him negatively.

Almost 30 percent of last year's Al Gore supporters say they like him, though only 22 percent approve of his job performance.

Bush's approval numbers in the Zogby poll closely mirror the findings of other polls, but his disapproval number is higher than in other surveys, such as the bipartisan Battleground 2002 survey last month, which put it at just 27 percent.

The Democrats' incessant hammering at Bush - over tax cuts allegedly too large and skewed to the rich, a "unilateral" foreign policy, an environmental policy said to favor polluters - seems to be having an effect.

Moreover, it does not seem to be damaging the Democrats, who have a slight edge on the generic Congressional ballot in the Zogby poll, 29 to 25 percent, though 42 percent of respondents were undecided.

The Zogby results indicate that, on energy, the public is prepared to believe the Democrats' conspiracy theory that oil companies are to blame for soaring gasoline prices.

A plurality of 31 percent of voters puts the blame on them, while 18 percent holds OPEC responsible, 8 percent cites an increased demand and 5 percent puts the onus on gas-guzzling SUVs.

However, only 10 percent of voters so far blame Bush. Even fewer respondents (8 percent) blame former President Bill Clinton, who has been accused by Bush aides of having had no energy-production policy during his eight-year run in the White House.

Democrats are hypercritical of Bush, partly because they genuinely oppose his policies, but party leaders in Washington also accuse him of ignoring them and pursuing conservative policies masked as moderate.

In the Battleground survey, two-thirds of voters said Bush has made significant efforts to reach out to Democrats. Even 45 percent of Democrats gave him credit on that score.

Nevertheless, Democratic Congressional leaders complain that, since the few perfunctory visits immediately following his inauguration, he's had no contact with them and has instead been trying to beat them by peeling away enough Democrats to win floor votes.

Bush succeeded with that tactic on taxes for a while, but that's over as soon as Democrats control the Senate.

Before Bush was inaugurated, Daschle said he hoped for regular, air-clearing meetings with Bush. That never happened, with the White House writing off both Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) as enemies.

Reaching out might not have worked, but failure to conciliate has made Democratic opposition all the harsher. Delaying the tax bill is an example.

Even if Democrats are not going to stop trying to thwart his agenda and band together to block his more controversial nominees, Bush can put the onus of partisanship on them if he makes more gestures of cooperation.

Another tactic Bush is trying - sometimes not too successfully - is to cast a centrist image on policy. After a spate of decisions that appeared anti-environmental (on arsenic, carbon dioxide emissions and the Kyoto Agreement), the President suddenly reversed course and took steps on lead emissions and federal lands that looked pro-environment.

Similarly on energy, Bush and Vice President Cheney pooh-poohed conservation and alternative fuels as a solution, making those ideas seem almost wimpy. But when the energy plan was announced, conservation became a lead item.

Politically, Bush obviously would have been better off touting conservation and environmental protection in the first place.

In the Battleground survey, Bush's inconsistencies led 51 percent of voters to say he was flip-flopping on the environment and health care.

Fifty-six percent of seniors, 54 percent of upscale suburbanites and 56 percent of independent women made this charge.

All the polls indicate that 85 percent of Republicans and conservatives approve of Bush's job performance. His base is solid; therefore, he can afford to make nice with Democrats - even if it's only to shift the burden of acting in a bipartisan manner to them.

But he should try it for real.



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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