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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2001 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

John H. Fund

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Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril -- THE White House has decided the war against terrorism should minimize President Bush's role in partisan politics. So neither he nor Dick Cheney will campaign for GOP gubernatorial nominees Bret Schundler in New Jersey and Mark Earley in Virginia. Such political caution may prove short-sighted.

If the GOP loses Virginia next week, you can bet the media will note its retiring governor, Jim Gilmore, is Mr. Bush's hand-picked chairman of the Republican National Committee. If Democrats win New Jersey, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe will claim tax cuts have lost potency as an issue. Pundits will note the GOP's 1989 defeat in both states was a sign of the first Bush administration's political weakness, while the GOP victory in both in 1993 was a precursor to the party's capture of Congress the next year.

If the GOP ends up losing either state narrowly, questions about the White House's hands-off strategy will be raised. Nothing prevented Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon from being political during the Vietnam War, or for that matter George Bush Sr. during the Gulf War buildup.

If Democrats do well, it will be with campaigns that softpedalled liberalism and emphasized management issues. Democrat Mark Warner has embraced rural Virginia values and skirted the issue of raising taxes, although his proposed state budget assumes $900 million in extra revenue from passage of a regional transportation tax.

In New Jersey, Democrat Jim McGreevey has run a campaign on bromides such as "respecting our diversity as a strength," while bashing Mr. Schundler as an "extremist" on abortion and guns. He has scored points by emphasizing the tripling of the state's debt by recent GOP governors. He's also repudiated his support of former Gov. Jim Florio's 1990 tax hikes and now says he's committed to not raising taxes. But he's refused to join Mr. Schundler in signing the Americans for Tax Reform pledge against higher taxes, leading some to speculate he will follow Mr. Florio's lead and discover a fiscal emergency that requires more revenue.

Polls have shown the better-known Mr. McGreevey, who came within one point of being elected governor in 1997, ahead all year. The latest New York Times poll shows him leading 44% to 33%. But New Jersey is a notoriously late-deciding state. The last New York Times poll taken before the 1993 election gave Mr. Florio a 15-point lead over Christine Todd Whitman. Mrs. Whitman wound up winning 49% to 48%.

Such a reversal could happen again this year. A whopping 21% of voters were undecided in the New York Times survey. Jeff Whalen, a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, says he finds the fact that Mr. McGreevey hasn't cracked 50%, save for one poll this week, to be a sign that voters "might be looking for somebody else to support . . . he hasn't locked this thing up yet." Mr. Schundler, who won three uphill races for mayor in heavily Democratic Jersey City, is used to running as an underdog and the tax issue has always been potent in the Garden State.

Indeed, taxes--not terrorists--are cited by more than a fourth of voters as the single most important issue, leading education by nearly two to one. Mr. Schundler has a pro-growth tax plan that includes cuts in property taxes, no capital-gains taxes on property investments in urban areas, and a $500 education tax credit. Most voters are cynical about Mr. Schundler's ability to cut taxes, but they expressed similar doubts about Mrs. Whitman in 1993. The tax issue is always more potent at times of economic uncertainty, such as now.

On education, Mr. Schundler has made a powerful argument for more use of choice and charter schools, but his detailed plans have confused some suburban voters who believe their local schools are fine. Mr. McGreevey's robotic claim that Mr. Schundler's plan will take $600 million from public schools has helped him win a two-to-one lead among parents with children in public schools.

In both New Jersey and Virginia, Republican infighting has damaged GOP chances. In New Jersey, Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco, a stalwart in the state's insider political culture, has refused to publicly endorse Mr. Schundler. Some DiFrancesco allies would rather see a Democrat elected than have Mr. Schundler uproot their cozy sinecures. Similarly, Virgin

ia Gov. Gilmore's feud with GOP legislators over the state budget has allowed Mr. Warner to campaign as an anti-politician. The head of John McCain's presidential campaign last year endorsed Mr. Warner, and a new poll shows Mr. Earley losing nearly a fifth of Republican voters.

In the end, the philosophical significance of this year's races will be muted. After all, in New York City some conservatives will actually vote for Democrat Mark Green as mayor rather than GOP candidate Mike Bloomberg, who openly calls himself a "liberal." But the political significance won't be so easily dismissed. If Democrats do well, it will mean a ratification of DNC Chairman McAuliffe's game plan: massively outspend Republicans on get-out-the vote efforts and national party TV ads, and attack GOP opponents as "extremists" while Democrats run purposefully vague, centrist-sounding candidates.

Republicans may bask for now in the knowledge that the president has 90% approval ratings, but they also had that a decade ago when they were outmaneuvered by a political strategy perfected by Bill Clinton, Mr. McAuliffe's mentor. Mr. Clinton may have left the political stage, but his party is continuing to deploy his playbook. Politics only went underground on Sept. 11. The permanent campaign continues, war or no war.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund