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Jewish World Review August 23, 2001 / 4 Elul, 5761

Michael Kelly

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Bush better make sure 'W' doesn't stand for 'wimp' -- George W. Bush is having a pretty good summer and a pretty good year. He is in a good deal better shape than was Bill Clinton at a comparable moment in his presidency. Unlike Clinton's first year, Bush's has been untarnished by scandal or by incompetence on the order of, say, the gays-in-the-military fiasco. Bush enjoys approval ratings better than Clinton's at this point, and they appear to be modestly growing. Bush's White House has proven itself fairly adept at working the president's agenda through a divided Congress.

The opposition party, meanwhile is not in obvious good shape. Its leader of the 2000 elections, Al Gore, remains in relative seclusion. With his new waistline and his new beard, he seems to be playing the stereotypical role of a man in a midlife crisis, and he is playing it to unintended comic effect.

Nevertheless, in a Bush-Gore rematch, Bush would stand at least as good a chance of losing as he did the first time around. One reason for this, noted earlier this week by the columnist John Podhoretz, is that Gore will re-emerge as a contender stronger than he looks now. He will shave the beard and lose the pounds. He will deal with his generally graceless and witless performance in 2000 in a week of self-consciously rueful talk of lessons learned, and both the press and the public will lap this up. Neither will be able to resist the idea of Bush-Gore II. It is too good a story line, and it guarantees a race of good, clean, throat-ripping fun.

But there is another, larger, reason for Bush's vulnerability in 2004 and for Republican vulnerability in general in 2002. This reason may be seen in a new television ad the Democratic National Committee is putting on the air. The ad features Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle at his demagogic best: "Under FDR, all we had to fear was fear itself. Now we have to fear arsenic in our drinking water, pollutants in our air, drilling on our public lands, a rollback of women's rights and workers' rights and a return of crippling deficits."

Daschle's assertions are overstated to the point of falsehood -- the "arsenic in the drinking water" charge is the most ridiculously so. Even if the Bush administration relaxes the new arsenic standards proposed late in the Clinton administration, it will certainly not allow standards higher than the Clinton administration promulgated, and the press and the public accepted, for all eight years of Clinton governance. But this is the crux of the problem for the Republicans: The charges are manifestly false and they stick anyway.

Any president arriving in office after a president of the opposing party would review and in some cases reverse his predecessor's policies. Bush has had to do it more than most because of Clinton's chronic habit of adopting policies with more of an eye for headlines than actual workability.

But Democratic bloody-shirters can count on a liberal press treating these attempts to second-guess the policies of a liberal administration as outrages against the public good. Tuesday's New York Times led the paper with a report based on unnamed sources asserting that, as the opening paragraph declared, "a program conceived by the Clinton administration to rid the world of 100 tons of American and Russian weapons-grade plutonium is likely to be abandoned by the Bush administration." The tone of the story throughout followed this beginning.

As a close reading suggests, the story could have been written from another angle. It could have been written to say that the Clinton administration's policy had failed to live up to its promise: The plan is currently estimated to cost more than $6 billion, three times what was predicted, and the Russians do not have the cash to come up with their share, $1.76 billion. Thus, the story truthfully could have been written to say that the White House was reviewing the apparently flawed Clinton plan to see if there was a better approach to the same ends.

None of this would much matter to Republicans if the public were more skeptical of the Democratic propaganda. But it is no accident that Daschle led his attack ad with three charges of environmental sinning. Daschle knows that suburban and urban Americans, and especially younger Americans, increasingly treat environmental protection as an issue of faith, not fact. In this environment (as corporations have learned painfully) a false charge of putting "arsenic in our drinking water," passes, largely unexamined, into public acceptance.

No matter what he does, Bush faces three more years of Democratic "arsenic" hollering, with the complaisant support of the national press. If he does not find a way to defeat this, he will be defeated.

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

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