Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2004 / 5 Adar, 5764

Robert Robb

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How not to achieve a mandate | President Bush supposedly launched his re-election campaign with a speech earlier this week to the Republican Governors Association.

Democrats want this election to be a referendum on Bush's tenure. Hence the endless drumbeat of criticism, sometimes reaching the point of farce.

Recently, for example, John Kerry has stood for the proposition that Bush was too quick to intervene in Iraq but too slow to intervene in Haiti. No sane calculation of the national interest could reach such a conclusion. Bush, for his part, clearly wants to make the election a choice between alternative directions for the country, particularly on terrorism and the economy. As he put it: "The man who sits in the Oval Office will set the course of the war on terror, and the direction of our economy. The security and prosperity of America are at stake."

And he contends that "(o)ur opponents have not offered much in the way of strategies to win the war, or policies to expand our economy."

Indeed, Kerry's strategy for the war on terrorism, at least thus far, consists mainly of calling a summit of international leaders to discuss it. And his economic plan consists mainly of relabeling proposals primarily directed at other purposes, in health care, education and increased subventions to state and local governments.

Meanwhile, economic growth is now rather robust, although that has more to do with normal adjustments to business conditions than to Bush's tax cuts, whose primary effect will be to improve the long-term economic trajectory. And the real war on terrorism is going rather well. The real war on terrorism, as Bush initially defined it, is against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations of global reach.

The leadership of al-Qaeda has been substantially disabled, its finances constricted, and terrorist cells incapacitated around the world. And contrary to Democratic bleating, there has been a high degree of international cooperation in this effort.

But then there is the war in Iraq, which Bush continues to insist is part of the war on terrorism. While deposing Saddam Hussein was arguably in the national security interests of the United States, it was only tangentially linked to the war on terrorism.

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And the failure to find weapons of mass destruction attenuates even that tangential link, that Hussein was a threat to transfer such weapons to terrorists who would use them against us.

The way Bush continues to describe and defend the war in Iraq raises the question of whether he is so focused on being a "war president," that he is susceptible to serious and dangerous miscalculation.

The war in Iraq has cost the American taxpayers $155 billion and counting. Given what has been discovered on the ground so far, it's hard to argue that deposing Saddam was the most effective investment of such money, if the goal is to protect this country against terrorist attack.

Moreover, at this point there is no clear or credible path to the democratic, peaceful, prosperous and united Iraq Bush has argued would be a transforming force in the Middle East.

American elections, however, are usually as much about the future as the past.

And there, Bush framed the election in telling and important terms: "Our opponents seem to be against every idea that gives Americans more authority and more choices and more control over their own lives . I trust the people, not Washington politicians, to make the best decisions for their own money, their own health, their own retirement and their own lives."

This choice agenda is powerful stuff. The problem is, except for tax cuts, the Bush administration has flinched from fighting for it.

It gave up vouchers as part of its education plan before the first shots were even fired. And it folded early on making prescription drug coverage part of a premium-support alternative to Medicare.

To his credit, Bush supported the concept of private retirement accounts as part of Social Security reform during his 2000 campaign. Resistance, however, is strong, and there are difficult implementation choices to be made. Yet Bush appears content to run once again on the general concept, rather than a more specific plan.

That's not the way to achieve a mandate. Ronald Reagan got his tax cuts passed because he was fairly specific during the election about a 25 percent across-the-board reduction in individual income tax rates.

Running on a much more detailed choice agenda might not improve Bush's chances of getting elected. But it would make victory much more consequential.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, The Arizona Republic