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.