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Jewish World Review May 31, 2001 / 9 Sivan, 5761

Michael Kelly

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Consumer Reports

Bush's blunders -- THE decision of Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont to abandon the Republican Party for independent status, voting with the Democratic caucus, calls seriously into question the vaunted reputation of the Bush White House for competence (vaunted here, among other places). It suggests an increasing likelihood that the long struggle between the parties for post-New Deal primacy will end in the Democrats' favor.

This is the second time in a month that the Bush White House has failed to see that it was rushing toward a spectacular disaster until the moment of the crash. The first instance occurred on May 3, when the United Nations Economic and Social Council voted to deny seats to the United States on the world body's Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a touching display of childlike candor, acknowledged that he had been blind-sided by the betrayal by American allies that resulted in the vote.

By deploying the traditional frank-admission approach, Powell was of course playing for press absolution, and he won it. Some eyebrow-raising would have been in order. When you stop to think about it, didn't Powell's admitted myopia say something worth stopping to think about? For this was more than a blindness of the moment: There had been many warning signals that the European allies were itching to smite the Bush administration so that it die.

In a campaign spurred and amplified by liberal media coverage, the liberal governments in Paris, London and Berlin had for months been denouncing the new administration in Washington with a fury not seen since the great wailing and gnashing of continental teeth that greeted Ronald Reagan's presidency. The reason was the same then as it is now: the natural hostility of the European elite toward an American administration determined to pursue a conservative course in foreign policy and dismissive of European elite sensibilities, which are chronically and structurally left-leaning.

But Reagan could afford such nose-thumbing. He was a Cold War president. As long as the Soviet Union stood, and as long as the American dollar, the American will and the American-led NATO stood against the Soviet Union, our European friends could not afford to well and truly snub us.

It did not seem to have occurred to Powell and the other cogitators of the Bush administration that this reality no longer obtained; indeed, it does not seem to have occurred to them yet. That doesn't speak of a momentary taking of the eye off the ball; it speaks of an inability to understand what is what on the most basic level.

So too with the Jeffords defection. To put it mildly, Bush won election as narrowly as anyone possibly could. He took office with a Senate divided precisely in half. Only the vice president's constitutional role as the tie-breaker in a 50-50 Senate vote allowed the Republicans to stay in the majority.

Moreover, the trend toward geographic polarization evident in the stark red-and-blue map of Election Day meant that Northeast Republican moderates -- besides Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine -- were increasingly vulnerable to electoral challenge if they stayed in a Republican Party led by conservative southerners. Defection was not unthinkable for any of the four; all it would take to shift the balance of power was one.

Facing this reality, the Democratic leadership acted secretly and cunningly to woo Jeffords, a career-long misfit in the Republican Party. Facing the same reality, Bush and his lieutenants -- chief to blame the gormless Trent Lott -- acted publicly and stupidly to push Jeffords over the edge. As with the U.N. revolt, the blindness was not merely of the moment; again, there was a perverse purposefulness to it; again it signified an inability to grasp large and basic realities.

Add to these the failure of the Bush campaign to foresee the extreme closeness of the race in a state governed by the candidate's brother, and the post-1994 congressional Republicans' chronic misreading as to what the public wanted out of government (not, as it turned out, the end of government, not the defunding of Big Bird), and you begin to suspect there might be a systemic problem here. Call it the competence gap.

Parties gain and lose power because of shifts in the public's beliefs. Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 because the public had become more conservative. But parties also gain and lose because of competence. Reagan won also because the Carter White House lacked competence.

Right now the country is split down the middle ideologically and probably moving slightly in the Democrats' direction. That means competence will decide who will emerge as the majority party.

Uh oh.

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

© 2001, Washington Post Co.