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.