Bush's Terrible Twos
Who knew it would come to this? That the fellow once derided for smirkiness and boobery, who won the White House because a Democratic Party official in Palm Beach botched a ballot design, who seemed a good bet to join his poppy in the Single-Term Wing of the Hall of Presidents, who was dismissed as a foreign policy rube by leaders overseas, now stands as the most powerful--and perhaps the most unfettered--President in modern history. In the wake of September 11, George W. Bush expanded the authority of the presidency and the federal government he heads (military tribunals, secret detentions and the like). He increased official secrecy (beyond what he and Vice President Cheney had already accomplished). And he claimed the right--with Congress's assent--to declare war on Iraq on his own, while he was already prosecuting, at his discretion (and that of Donald Rumsfeld), a mostly clandestine war against terrorism, which has included the CIA covertly assassinating suspected enemies with remote-controlled drones. Richard Nixon never had it so good.
On the home front, Bush, by dauntlessly campaigning like a partisan madman for Republicans last fall, thwarted a historical trend and practically single-handedly reshaped the political realm--at least in the short run--to his advantage. So much so that he was able to ring in the new year with a most brazen opening shot. He hurled at Congress yet a new round of supersized, budget-breaking tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the well-to-do, while his White House prepared to clamp down on domestic spending, which tends to benefit middle- and low-income Americans. The White House, for example, has proposed cutting $300 million for heating assistance for the poor. For comparison's sake, the country could provide health coverage to all the 9 million uninsured children and fully fund Head Start for the cost of Bush's proposed elimination of the dividend tax. It's leave-no-millionaire-behind time--even if a costly war is about to start (only your President knows for sure). The son of the man who once ridiculed Ronald Reagan's trickledown, supply-side fantasies as "voodoo economics" now champions Reaganomics with a vengeance. And with the embers still aglow from Trent Lott's verbal cross-burning, Bush returned to the Senate the judicial nomination of Charles Pickering--whom the Senate Democrats had rejected because of his questionable civil rights record--and other controversial court nominees previously spurned by the Democrats. During the presidential campaign, Bush vowed (incessantly), "I'm a uniter, not a divider." Now the motto is, "In your face." He sure has grown in office. From Boy George to King George.
Bush seems in love with his own boldness. With good reason. His first big, relieve-the-rich tax cut was pronounced a non-starter, yet he rammed it through Congress, with the acquiescence of a dozen Senate Democrats. Last year, when Democrats urged Bush to take his get-Saddam obsession to the United Nations, he accepted their advice and then persuaded--or rolled--the Security Council. Recall the argument that the Saudis will never go for war against Iraq? The oil autocrats there recently said they would permit Bush to use bases for some war-related activity. And Germany and France, which have opposed Bush's Iraq endeavor, have signaled they may well join in, if or when D-day comes, even though they favor continuing inspections and working through the UN. The ongoing inspections process might be a bummer for the White House, but they still seem to believe they can call (and fire) the shots as they see fit. And Bush is trying not to let that inconvenient business in North Korea--it's not a crisis, it's not a crisis--interfere with the march to war. With North Korea, Bush's goal is containment: Contain any controversy, that is, and don't let reality intrude on the we're-in-control agenda crafted by Bush, Cheney & Rove, Ltd.
Certainly, in the first half of his first term, the Administration had several what-is-Rove-thinking moments: the Jeffords Jump, PR-foolish environmental-protection rollbacks (arsenic in water, anyone?), the tussle over Cheney's secret meetings with energy lobbyists and Enron. Does anyone remember Enron now? With the GOPers in charge, you can bet your diminished 401(k) there won't be any more high-profile Enron hearings in the Senate; the Democrats blew that chance. Enron feels so pre-9/11--which it wasn't. But much of Bush's less-than-glorious political history--even post-9/11 episodes unrelated to that awful day--appears to have been erased or rendered secondary by the explosions at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He sure knows that.
Where are the brakes? If Bush puts the pedal to the metal, who or what can slow down this force de président? His tax-cut plan met with widespread criticism--and not merely from Democrats. The Washington Post editorialists uncharacteristically mocked Bush: "But if $700 billion [in tax cuts] is bolder than $300 billion, why stop there? Why not cut $1.7 trillion, or $2.7 trillion?... Why not abolish [the income tax]? Wouldn't that be bold? Wouldn't it be the conservative and--speaking now as beleaguered taxpayers--the compassionate thing to do?" Yet the Bushies did not seem bothered by the extensive skepticism. Nor have they displayed concern that GOP Senators John McCain, Lincoln Chafee, George Voinovich, Susan Collins and Charles Grassley all have expressed varying degrees of unease with parts of the package. With almost all Senate Democrats firmly against these cuts at the moment--Zell Miller, once again, stands out--it might take only one or two Republican skunks to ruin Bush's party. (Team Bush apparently hopes to run the tax cuts through the Senate in what's known as a reconciliation measure--which would not be vulnerable to a filibuster.) In the face of this, the Bush bravado is unnerving. Is he playacting--unveiling an over-the-top plan to wow the base, realizing it will eventually be sliced and diced? Or does he know something we don't? Perhaps he's ready to stare down the few remaining Republican fuddy-duddies who fret over deficits. After all, Senate Republicans ought to be grateful to Bush. He won them back their chairmanships, and he nimbly guided them through the ugly Lott imbroglio. Bill Frist starts his tenure as Senate majority leader as a partly owned subsidiary of the White House. Grassley told The Hill, "The president should not take the attitude that he has a free hand with Congress, even though that may be accurate." The White House has to love warnings like that.