The American people, argued President Bush in his weekly radio address on December 8, "want action on an agenda of economic growth, energy independence, patients' rights, education, faith-based legislation–all of which are important issues that are stuck in Congress."
September 11 was supposed to change everything, but despite war and recession the President remains wedded to the same reactionary agenda he pushed before the attack. Invoking his wartime popularity and authority, he is driving his old agenda through a reluctant Congress and forcing party-line votes on a range of fundamental issues. Start with the "stimulus plan." The terrorist attack revealed glaring domestic security and public health needs. The spreading recession has exposed gaping holes in the safety net for workers and the poor. The triple punch of presidential tax cuts, recession and crisis spending has wiped out the projected budget surpluses. But Bush demands that the stimulus plan lock in even more permanent tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy while stiffing unemployed workers, states in growing fiscal crisis and domestic security needs. Protecting our food and water supplies and guarding our nuclear power plants can wait.
The turmoil in the Gulf and the bankruptcy of Enron have given new urgency to regulation, renewables, conservation and energy independence. But Bush has continued to press for an energy plan that features subsidies and tax breaks for energy companies and drilling in the Arctic wilderness. The stock market collapse and the importance of Social Security survivors' benefits to the families of victims of September 11 should have buried talk of privatization. But the President's Social Security Commission has just released proposals that call for deep cuts in guaranteed benefits to help pay for private accounts.
After September 11 there was much talk in the Administration about leading a renewed global initiative against hunger and disease. No more. Instead, the President joined the corporate lobby to buy enough votes to squeak fast-track trade legislation through the House, calling it vital to the war on terrorism. The ensuing negotiations will be less about aiding the poor than about repaying corporate contributors. In the war in Afghanistan, international cooperation and coalition have been essential. But the Administration has continued to shred US international commitments–spurning the final Kyoto global warming negotiations, withdrawing from the ABM treaty for Star Wars, even torpedoing negotiations over enforcing the biological weapons convention.
Attorney General Ashcroft hasn't let the Constitution, state laws or the advice of experienced investigators stand in the way of raids on Arab-Americans and Muslims. But kowtowing to the National Rifle Association, he has blocked investigators from asking if suspected terrorists have purchased guns. And he has found time to deny the terminally ill the right to a dignified exit in Oregon, and the ailing the right to medical marijuana in California.
White House political adviser Karl Rove likes to brag that unlike the Clinton Administration, the Bush presidency is not poll driven. That is certainly true of the policies, most of which offend majority opinion while serving the conservative and corporate interests that underwrote Bush's drive to the White House. What is poll driven, however, is how the policies are sold. Bush calls on Congress to enact his stimulus plan because workers "are hurting in America," even though his plan ignores their pain. He puffs his Big Oil plan as the road to "energy independence," even as it increases reliance on global oil companies and markets. He chides Congress for failing to pass a prescription drug benefit, even as his tax cuts siphon off the needed money.
Over time, this big lie technique will surely corrode his newfound credibility. In the short term, however, the war strengthens Bush's hand. In a divided Congress, Republicans march in virtual lockstep behind their popular President. Democrats lower their voices and are reluctant to take on the President frontally. On close votes–scuttling domestic security spending, passing fast track, pushing a shameless "stimulus bill" through the House–the desire to "support the President" has helped him get his way. But the changed politics don't alter the reality that the policies are a deep disservice to the country. Bush is squandering his chance to be a national unity President in order to pursue a conservative agenda out of step with the nation's needs and the people's expectations. It's time for Democrats to stiffen their backbones and make their case. If they do, Republicans may discover just how out of step those policies are in the 2002 Congressional elections.