Scoundrel Time

Scoundrel Time

President Bush is using his popularity in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks to push through some deeply partisan legislation.


This week, George W. Bush began peddling the "three legs" of his program to "restore confidence in the economy": fast-track trade legislation, his big-oil energy program and a multibillion-dollar piñata of corporate and high-end tax cuts. In other words, his old agenda repackaged as a response to war and recession. None of these could have been enacted prior to September 11. And remarkably, all are still in trouble now. The President's soaring opinion polls aren't making his agenda any more palatable.

In the war abroad, the President captured the middle ground by spurning the calls of the holy-warrior conservatives for a war of civilizations against Islam. By going with Colin Powell and coalition, United Nations-sanctioned diplomacy and a war targeted on Osama bin Laden, Bush cemented his support across the political spectrum. Democrats like Senator Joe Biden are now leading the defense of Administration policies.

Initially, Democrats offered similar support at home. Bush started meeting regularly with the leaders of both parties. Together they rushed through $40 billion in emergency appropriations for war and reconstruction and the $15 billion airline bailout, which did nothing for workers. They handed Attorney General Ashcroft virtually all the intrusive powers he sought in the antiterrorist legislation. Republican senators led the charge to federalize airport security, a bill that passed the Senate 100 to 0. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt pledged that he would allow "no light and no air" between the President and the Democrats.

Bush seemed to reciprocate, even pledging $20 billion to New York City for rebuilding, and pinching Senator Chuck Schumer's cheek on national TV. He then signed off on the bipartisan principles for an economic stimulus put together by leaders of the budget committees.

But "patriotism," as that old Tory Dr. Samuel Johnson quipped, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Eight days after the terrorist attack, the Wall Street Journal laid out the scoundrel agenda in an editorial arguing that Bush's newfound popularity made his "agenda far more achievable"–including billions more in tax cuts, drilling in the Alaska wilderness and the appointment of reactionary judges. Scoundrel time opened immediately. Senate Republicans held up the defense bill, trying to attach the President's energy program to it. They filibustered foreign assistance appropriations, trying to force Democrats to confirm some of Bush's Neanderthal judicial nominees. House Republicans sat on the emergency airport security bill, theologically opposed to making that a federal function. US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick campaigned for fast-track trade authority, suggesting that its opponents, like bin Laden, reject the modern world. And House majority leader Dick Armey and others in what Newt Gingrich called the "perfectionist caucus" of the party went ballistic at Bush's embrace of a balanced stimulus package and marched up to the White House to bring the President to heel.

So, House Republicans passed, on a virtual party-line vote, a shameless special-interest bauble of corporate and upper-end tax cuts in the name of stimulus. The bill showers two-thirds of its $212 billion, three-year benefits on corporations and three-fourths of its individual tax cuts on the top 10 percent of income earners. In the name of giving a temporary boost to the economy, the bill permanently repeals the alternative minimum tax on corporations (a law that insures that no matter how clever their lobbyists and accountants, profitable corporations have to pay something in taxes). Laughably, the House bill makes the repeal retroactive for fifteen years, with the result that IBM gets $1.4 billion in rebates, General Motors $833 million, General Electric $671 million and Enron (the leading Republican contributor) $254 million.

More than 500,000 workers have been thrown out of work since September 11. Two-thirds will get no help from our unemployment insurance system. Few will be able to sustain health insurance for their families. But Dick Armey dismissed bolstering unemployment insurance as against "the American spirit," and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill scorned it as part of a "spending package, not a stimulus package." Similarly, even as cities and states face a deepening fiscal crisis, the White House opposes any assistance to them in the stimulus bill.

War profiteering is as old as the Republic. But usually the corporations involved are producing something for the war effort, not simply raiding the Treasury. And usually Presidents try to curb the profiteers. Now Bush cheers them on, announcing that he is "very pleased" with the House bill.

The blatant plunder in the House bill finally sparked a reaction. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, already enraged by the airline bailout, mobilized workers across the country to demand aid for the unemployed. Progressive Democrats revolted in the House caucus, stiffening resistance to the Republican bill. Focus groups and polling showed people angered by the corporate profiteering. This was tonic for the courage of Democrats setting up a battle over the bill in the Senate. At the same time, Senate Democrats faced down the Republican filibuster on judges. Lack of support deferred votes on fast-track trade authority in the House and on the energy bill in the Senate.

Bush seems intent on pushing his flawed stimulus bill and forcing a vote on fast track. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is busy brokering a back-room deal. But the scoundrel patriots are disgracing the flag they drape themselves in. They can succeed only if the public remains distracted by anthrax and Afghanistan. If people of conscience in both parties stand up and the public gets a whiff of what's going on, Bush may find that even the leader of a nation at war can't sell these lemons.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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