Jewish World Review June 3, 2003 / 3 Sivan, 5763

Peter A. Brown

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Consumer Reports

Bush bucks NRA to woo soccer moms | President Bush sent a signal to suburban American women the other day that he isn't the scary right-wing crazy that some would have them believe, and to Democrats that he isn't going to be easy to defeat.

In announcing that he won't veto an effort to continue a ban on assault weapons, Bush made clear that he won't allow Democrats to label him a tool of the National Rifle Association, as they would love to do.

He was taking a page from Bill Clinton, who followed the same strategy when he reversed course in 1996 and signed welfare-reform legislation that required recipients to work for their benefits. Clinton's message to middle-class men was that he cared about their hard-earned tax money more than he did about welfare recipients.

Bush, like Clinton, is spending political capital to confront his core supporters in an overt appeal to voters whose allegiance is less sure but perhaps more important.

It's smart politics.

Both popular incumbents took off the table an issue with the potential to hurt them with key swing voters before the opposition could bring it to fruition. In this case, it isn't so much assault weapons as it is taking on the NRA, which robs the Democrats of an opportunity to paint Bush as an out-of-touch gun nut.

He knows that even though he'll hurt the feelings of some of his strongest supporters, in the end they'll have no place to go and will vote for him anyway.

In the process, Bush, as did Clinton before him, answers a nagging question in the minds of swing voters. It is the political equivalent of football's draw play: Use the opposition's own aggression against them.

With Bush popular, Democrats understand they must convince those who admire his wartime leadership that he has flaws that can't be overlooked. Obviously, the economy is the Democrats' main area of attack, but there isn't much they can do other than hope it remains soft.

But Democrats win when they are able to convince voters that Republicans are out of touch with the middle class, not just in terms of understanding their economic woes but also their values. A key component of that strategy involves guns.

Suburban women, especially, are more likely than not to see the gun issue as one of controlling crime rather than allowing individuals to hunt or defend themselves.

More than most issues, one's views on gun control correspond strongly with geography. Gun control is especially popular in urban areas and on the two coasts, but unpopular in much of the South and Rocky Mountain West and in rural areas. The suburbs, home to the largest group of voters, fall somewhere in between on the issue.

Bush is a strong gun-control foe, but during the 2000 presidential campaign he refused NRA efforts to have him pledge to lift the existing ban on assault weapons, which are used only for hunting human beings. Although gun-control legislation isn't always popular, it, and especially the assault-weapons ban, plays well in suburbia, and especially among women.

When Senate Democrats said they wanted to extend the ban that expires next year, Bush quickly announced that he would not veto the legislation, even though some of the ban's backers acknowledge it is largely symbolic and filled with loopholes.

His decision didn't exactly make the NRA jump for joy, but that's exactly the point. There is political profit for Bush to be seen as bucking the gun lobby, which is viewed suspiciously by many swing voters.

Bush's decision is the Republican equivalent of Democrat Clinton's 1996 welfare reversal that was detested by liberals who were his core supporters.

Some liberals denounced Clinton for caving in to those who wanted to make welfare punitive, and a top aide even resigned in protest.

But Clinton - who sent much the same message to white suburbia in 1992 by picking a public fight with Jesse Jackson - knew that liberals had no place to go. They were happy with most everything else he had done and weren't going to desert him in November.

Had Clinton vetoed the welfare bill, he would have been susceptible to charges that he was a wild-eyed liberal who would spend the middle class' hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize people who would not work. His signing the bill played especially well among white men, with whom Democrats run poorly.

The strategy worked for Clinton, and it is working for Bush. Eighteen months before Election Day, Democrats who think he is going to make their work easy ought to think again.

They'll probably just have to hope for another recession.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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05/13/03: Bush mimics Nixon, Reagan by going against the political grain

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