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The loudest applause during George W. Bush's first budget address to Congress--a thumping, shouting, jump-to-your-feet outpouring of enthusiasm--erupted in response to his first mention of his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. Coming at the end of a masterful but deceitful description, with more concealed trapdoors than a funhouse ride (they have the fun and we get taken for a ride), of how he could do everything from funding Social Security to paying down the debt and have money "still left over," Bush's proposal argued for returning that money "to the people who earned it in the first place."

The country is not buying. The latest Pew Research Center poll finds that only 19 percent of Americans think the current budget surplus should be used for a tax cut, and 79 percent believe the proposed Bush tax cut will most benefit the wealthy. Meanwhile, 60 percent want any surplus used for domestic programs as well as Social Security and Medicare.

Why, then, was the response to Bush's tax cut proposal so enthusiastic? Perhaps for the same reason that the words "campaign finance reform" never crossed Bush's lips, an omission Senator John McCain wryly noted in a CNN interview. The Wall Street Journal reported the morning after the speech that industry groups have formed a coalition to push the tax cuts in what one White House adviser described as "the largest PR campaign this party has ever conducted." The same adviser went on to say that the effort "will test if we can use the power of the White House and congressional control and the lobbying world to work our will."

With the cat thus out of the bag, Bush's budget should be pronounced dead on arrival. Now is the moment for the minority party to put forth a sensible alternative: No new tax breaks for the wealthy. An earlier, bigger check--either in the form of a tax credit or a "prosperity dividend"--for middle- and low-income earners, to jump-start the economy. Prescription drug coverage for seniors and affordable healthcare for all. Investment in schools and teachers' salaries. Investment to combat the growing shortage of affordable rental housing. Electoral reforms that will insure that every vote is counted.

In opposition, Democrats find it difficult to speak with one voice. A few have already thrown in their lot with Bush. Others are looking to deal. Still others seem stuck on paying down the debt as their prime concern. Thus it is vital that progressives in the party--and the increasingly vibrant base of the party that is central to its electoral hopes--speak out independently to force the debate. Here the Progressive Caucus has done well by pushing its prosperity dividend, which would give every American a $300 check in contrast to Bush's tax giveaway to the rich. Responsible Wealth has done remarkable work organizing the statement by about 120 of America's richest men and women against estate-tax repeal. The large coalition of groups convened to fight the tax cuts--under the leadership of progressive unions, civil rights groups and the public interest community--will help stiffen the backbone of faltering legislators. The Campaign for America's Future's plan for creating a progressive leadership organization will help define and broadcast the choice we face.

Bush has benefited, of course, from the continuing press focus on former President Clinton's tawdry unpardonables and his legacy of political timidity and tactical retreat. Now, progressives must force Democrats to shed that defensiveness. The country did not vote for the Bush agenda, and the vast majority will not benefit from it. Time to go on the attack. This is a fight that can be won.

During his closing weeks in office, Bill Clinton refused a plea, signed by many leading lawyers and civil libertarians, that he declare a moratorium on capital punishment. The moratorium enjoys quite extensive support among Republicans and is gaining ground with public opinion; its imposition would undoubtedly have given a vital second chance to defendants and convicts who are in dire need of it. Clinton waved the petition away. So I think we can safely dispense with the argument being put forward by some of his usual apologists--that his sale of indulgences in The Pardoner's Tale was motivated by his own fellow feeling for those trapped in the criminal justice system. His fellow feeling is for fellow crooks, now as ever.

Every conservative is now a compassionate conservative.
Well, most were at the recent annual Conservative Political Action
Conference, which drew more than 3,000 right-wing activists and
leaders to a hotel outside Washington. A year ago George W. Bush was
viewed with suspicion by many conservative honchos who worried that
ideological wimpiness ran in the family and that Bush's Compassionate
Conservatism™ was a retreat from traditional conservatism. What
a difference a butterfly ballot can make. At the confab Bush was
embraced by this flock as one of their own, a politician who waged a
masterful, conservative campaign and who--even better--has adopted as
his role model not his pop but Ronald Reagan. Marc Holtzman, the
Colorado secretary of technology, proclaimed that a "conservative
revolution...is shaping America today."

Had a county
elections officer in Palm Beach not designed a confusing ballot,
these cons probably would be whining about Bush and the
wishy-washiness of compassionate conservatism. But winning--even by
Supreme Court fiat--changes everything. And the attendees were
delighted to grant Bush slack. They did not snipe at his tax-cut plan
(too small and unrevolutionary for most of them), his education plan
(which bolsters the Education Department rather than demolishes it
and nudges school choice toward the back of the bus) or his
military-spending plan (which includes a Pentagon raise but does not
immediately shower the military with extra tens of billions of
dollars). They're willing to wait for Bush to score legislative wins
before pressing Social Security privatization, and they're content
with an incremental approach to restricting abortion
rights.

This usually cantankerous lot is saluting and
following. Commentator Ann Coulter noted that Bush "could teach us a
few things.... He discovered all you had to do was go around calling
yourself nice.... Many of us took umbrage at that." But it worked.
Not everyone absorbed the lesson. Leftist-turned-rightist author
David Horowitz urged Republicans to "stop being so polite." Call the
liberals what they truly are, he advised: "totalitarians."

Still, the bitterness quotient at this CPAC was much lower
than in previous years. No more Where's Lee Harvey Oswald When You
Need Him? bumper stickers. (Instead, one could buy Dixie Forever
stickers--as speakers urged conservatives to reach out to blacks and
Latinos.) Bill and Hillary Clinton received fewer jabs than expected.
A group called America's Survival did hand out a report on "Hillary
Clinton's Secret United Nations Agenda." (Implement "world
government...that will destroy American sovereignty and traditional
families.") Oliver North blasted the ex-President for pardoning Marc
Rich, because Rich traded with hostage-holding Iran. (Did North
forget he sent missiles to hostage-holding Iran?) Senator
James Inhofe griped, "We have had a President who has given away or
covered up [the illegal transfer of] virtually every secret in our
nuclear arsenal." Nevertheless, many CPACers appeared to believe it
was time to move on.

But even as rightists control the
White House and Congress, cons still claim they are besieged. Terry
Jeffrey, the editor of Human Events, asserted that "the iron
law of American journalism" still stands: "The most conservative
candidate in any campaign will be demonized by the establishment
press." (Perhaps he ought to ask Al Gore about this.) Coulter, in all
seriousness, said that Republicans and conservatives--in battling
Democrats and liberals--"are always at a disadvantage because we
won't lie." One activist complained that Democrats "with their
talking points run circles around Republicans." Another fretted that
the GOP, up against a Democratic Party backed by organized labor, was
"losing the ground campaign." An NRA official had to remind him that
the gun lobby runs its own ground campaign pretty darn well. Perhaps
it's tough to be in power when you're accustomed to viewing yourself
as a victim of persecution.

Of course, enemies abound. The
National Right to Work Foundation's Stefan Gleason reported that the
AFL-CIO "has now embraced communist influences." Senator Mitch
McConnell noted that campaign finance reform is a plot mounted by
Hollywood, academia and the media to "quiet your vote...[so] they'll
have more power." The NRA's Wayne LaPierre warned that the organizers
of a UN conference on gun control "want the marvelous millennial
youth [of the United States] not to be American citizens but global
citizens.... I say never!" Andrea Sheldon Lafferty of the Traditional
Values Coalition accused Planned Parenthood of defending abortion
rights so it can make money selling fetal remains.

Fear and
loathing continue, but Bush has tamed this fierce crowd. "The
ideologically motivated in politics are often disappointed," said
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "But most
conservatives are surprised they like Bush so much." Marc Rotterman,
a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, reflected the spirit of
CPAC when he remarked, "We on the right need to give Bush a chance to
develop a broad-based agenda. After 1994 we expected things to go too
fast." Now they watch Bush with hope, and they dare to believe.

He and the Greens are both a problem and a possible asset for the Democrats.

George W. Bush's mid-February directive
ordering the Pentagon to review and restructure the US nuclear
arsenal is a wake-up call for supporters of arms control and
disarmament. Under the guise of revising nuclear policy to make it
more relevant to the post-cold war world, the Bush Administration is
pushing an ambitious scheme to deploy a massive missile defense
system and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. If fully
implemented, Bush's aggressive new policy could provoke a multisided
nuclear arms race that will make the US-Soviet competition of the
cold war era look tame by comparison.

To understand the
danger of Bush's emerging nuclear doctrine, you have to read the fine
print. Some elements of his approach--first outlined at a May 23,
2000, speech at the National Press Club--sound sensible. Bush implied
that if elected President, he would reduce the nation's arsenal of
nuclear overkill from its current level of 7,500 strategic warheads
to 2,500 or less. In tandem with these reductions, which go beyond
anything the Clinton Administration contemplated, Bush also promised
to take as many nuclear weapons as possible off hairtrigger alert
status, thereby reducing the danger of an accidental
launch.

So far, so good: fewer nuclear weapons, with fewer
on high-alert status, would be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Bush also committed himself to deploying, "at the
earliest possible date," a missile defense system capable of
defending "all fifty states and our friends and allies and deployed
forces overseas." Unlike the $60 billion Clinton/Gore National
Missile Defense scheme, which involved land-based interceptors based
in Alaska and North Dakota, Bush's enthusiasm for a new Star Wars
system knows no limit. The President and his Star Warrior in Chief,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are willing to put missile
interceptors on land, at sea, on airplanes and in outer space in
pursuit of continued US military dominance.

When Bush
announced Rumsfeld's appointment in late December, he acknowledged
that the Pentagon veteran would have a big "selling job" to do on
national missile defense, with allies and potential adversaries
alike. But even Washington's closest NATO allies continue to have
grave reservations about Rumsfeld's suggestion that the United States
might trash the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 in order to
pursue its missile defense fantasy. Meanwhile, Russian President
Vladimir Putin has flatly stated that a US breakout from the treaty
would call the entire network of US-Russian arms agreements into
question.

The cost of Bush's Star Wars vision could be as
much as $240 billion over the next two decades, but that's the least
of our problems. According to a Los Angeles Times account of a
classified US intelligence assessment that was leaked to the press
last May, deployment of an NMD system by the United States is likely
to provoke "an unsettling series of political and military ripple
effects...that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and
medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the
further spread of military technology in the Middle
East."

Bush's provocative missile defense scheme may not
even be the most dangerous element of his new-age nuclear policy.
According to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, Bush's
renovation of US nuclear doctrine will draw heavily on a January 2001
study by the National Institute for Public Policy that was directed
by Dr. Keith Payne, whose main claim to fame is co-writing a 1980s
essay on nuclear war titled "Victory Is Possible." Bush National
Security Council staffers Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley were
involved in the production of the NIPP study, as was William
Schneider, informal adviser and ideological soulmate of Donald
Rumsfeld.

In its most egregious passage, the study
advocates the development and design of a new generation of nuclear
weapons to be used for both deterrent and "wartime roles," ranging
from "deterring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use by regional
powers" to "preventing catastrophic losses in a conventional war,"
from "providing unique targeting capabilities (deep
underground/biological weapons targets)" to "enhancing US
influence in crises." In short, at a time when a number of prominent
military leaders, like Gen. Lee Butler, the former head of the
Strategic Air Command, have been suggesting the abolition of nuclear
weapons on the grounds that they serve no legitimate military
purpose, George W. Bush is taking advice from a group of unreformed
initiates in the nuclear priesthood who are desperately searching for
ways to relegitimize nuclear weapons.

The unifying vision
behind the Bush doctrine is nuclear unilateralism, the notion that
the United States can and will make its own decisions about the size,
composition and employment of its nuclear arsenal without reference
to arms control agreements or the opinions of other nations. It is a
disastrous doctrine that raises the odds that nuclear weapons will be
used again one day, and as such it demands an immediate and forceful
public response.

It's not as if we haven't been down this
road before. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan rode into Washington
with guns blazing, pressing for a massive nuclear buildup and a Star
Wars missile defense system, the international peace movement helped
roll back his nightmare nuclear scenarios and push him toward a
policy of nuclear arms reductions, not mutual annihilation. It will
take that same kind of energy and commitment to stave off Bush's
born-again nuclearism.

Back during the
presidential campaign, George W. Bush called Clarence Thomas and
Antonin Scalia his favorite Supreme Court Justices--a remark widely
interpreted at the time as just smoke-blowing in the direction of the
right. Guess what--it's time to start taking Bush at his word,
especially when it comes to Thomas.

Just weeks after the
inauguration, Justice Thomas has emerged as the new Administration's
judicial patron saint. The top three officials of the Bush Justice
Department--Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor
General-designate Theodore Olson and Deputy Attorney
General-designate Larry Thompson--are all close Thomas friends.
Thomas even officiated at Olson's wedding (also Rush Limbaugh's) and
Ashcroft's swearing-in. While Thomas's wife, Virginia, shovels
Heritage Foundation résumés into the 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue personnel department, his former clerk Helgard Walker sits in
the White House counsel's office.

After the Court's Florida
decision, Thomas told a group of high school students that his
famous, baffling reluctance to ask questions on the bench grows out
of his childhood fear of being mocked for speaking Gullah (a black
language) in an all-white seminary class. Maybe, but the vindicating
presence of so many friends in the White House seems to have given
the Supreme Court's Garbo new confidence: After nearly a decade on
the sidelines, in mid-February Thomas emerged into the Washington
spotlight at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with a
Castro-length jeremiad on what he views as continuing liberal efforts
to stifle him and other conservative culture warriors.

When
Thomas was nominated for the Court, some African-American and liberal
voices argued that his biography as a black man gave hope that with
time he would moderate his far-right views on affirmative action,
welfare and civil rights. His rulings make their own testimony, of
course, but if that AEI dinner speech is any indication, what is most
remarkable about Thomas is that he has scarcely changed at all,
either in preoccupations or politics. The themes of his speech--a
hodgepodge of cherry-picked libertarian quotes from the likes of
Hamilton, Montesquieu and Thomas Sowell--were instantly familiar to
anyone who waded through his preconfirmation writings as the Reagan
Administration's dismantler of equal opportunity enforcement. Back
then, he praised sports and business as the great crucibles of
character in a free society. In his AEI speech he told of how "the
great UCLA basketball coach JohnWooden taught his players how to play
the game by first teaching them how to lace up and tie their shoes."
Back in 1991, Thomas dodged uncomfortable questions about his friend
Jay Parker, a flack and registered agent for the apartheid-era South
African government. In his speech he went out of his way to praise
Parker as his mentor.

Most of all, what has remained
consistent about Justice Thomas is his swirling hornet's nest of
resentment--that strange combination of megalomania and self-pity
embodied in his famous denunciation of his confirmation hearings as a
"high-tech lynching." At AEI he favorably compared himself and other
conservative culture warriors to Dimitar Peshev, a heroic Bulgarian
civil servant who during World War II secured the rescue of Sofia's
Jews at considerable personal risk. Thomas remains obsessed with the
idea of conservatives as persecuted victims--which, since those
conservatives now run the White House, Justice and Congress, raises
questions about his hold on reality. But the question currently being
floated in Washington judicial circles is whether Thomas, not the
oft-mentioned Scalia, is Bush's favored successor to Chief Justice
William Rehnquist.

GOP strategist Karl Rove and the politics of destruction.

Are the Clintons better off than they were eight years ago? The evidence appears to point to a resounding yes. So why do they seem to resent the question? Probably because only a full-dress Congressional investigation could establish quite how this came to be and exactly how much better off they are.

The Bush Administration's health policies for Africa basically amount to the moral equivalent of the death penalty for 25 million people.

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