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Jewish World Review August 31, 2004 / 15 Elul 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Return of the compassionate conservative | For too long now, the Bushies have been running a re-election campaign focused on getting the Republican Party's base out to vote. This convention will showcase GOP moderates like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Finally, the Bushies will reach outside their warm inner circle and — we hope — make people outside the GOP base feel welcome and included.

It's about time. The biggest shortcoming of President Bush's circle is that Bush overvalues loyalty in such a way that it discourages the airing of differing opinions. As a result, the Bushies are tone deaf to how their decisions appear outside their White House cocoon.

That Happy Little Family has led to what I see as President Bush's big political mistakes. So as I cover the Republican National Convention, I'll be watching to see if GOP delegates have similar or other complaints about Bush League.

Bush's first big mistake was to pick Dick Cheney to be his running mate. While Cheney has been a fine vice president, he has been a PR disaster from Day One. To Democrats and independents, Cheney is: R-Halliburton, the veep with a golden parachute. His meetings with corporate energy biggies to help formulate Bush energy policy confirmed the belief that Cheney is too tight with corporate America.

Cheney had his reasons for talking to Big Energy, but it looks bad. Worse, no one at Team Bush seems to see the damage. I once asked a top member of the Bush administration how he thought it looks when, for example, the United Nations investigates Halliburton contracts. He shrugged that Bush can't win the votes of people who think the Iraq war was about oil. They don't get it: There are Americans who supported the war but still would prefer an administration less cozy with defense contractors. Some of these people are swing voters who have been needlessly alienated.

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Bush's second mistake was picking John Ashcroft to be attorney general. Sorry, but Ashcroft comes across like a Sunday school teacher, not a prosecutor. It doesn't help that the Sept. 11 commission wrote that Ashcroft's predecessor, Thomas Pickard, told the panel that Ashcroft told him he didn't want to hear about terrorist threats anymore — in the summer of 2001. Ashcroft denies Pickard's charge.

It also doesn't help that Bush never seemed interested in discovering if incompetence contributed to Sept. 11. It's the loyalty thing, again.

Bush's third mistake was not vetoing the pork-rich 2002 farm bill — a move that told Congress he would be an easy touch. If Bush had been tougher then, this year's federal deficit might not be a record $445 billion. But it is. And he has to know that Washington's big spending — thanks to his signature — will cost him votes. (Yes, John Kerry talks like a big spender, and also voted yes on the farm bill, but he wasn't president when the federal budget returned to the red.)

I won't go into mistakes related to the war in Iraq, because the consequences are too serious to lump into a column on political miscalculation. Besides, no war is waged without mistakes, and it may take years to know what they were.

So I'll move to the issue of where Bush goes, or doesn't go, as in the Bush refusal to speak at this year's NAACP annual meeting. Sure, some NAACP members might have heckled Bush. But when Bush limits his appearances to friendly audiences, he reinforces his image of an isolated president, unwilling to even try to win over people outside his circle.

Worse, it makes him look small.

There are areas where Bush has reached out beyond his base — for which he gets little credit. Consider how Bush has increased funding for AIDS programs across the world or his push for human rights in Africa.

Bush signed the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform measure — so dear to America's newspaper editorial boards — but rarely do critics note that signature without also pointing out that Bush snubbed Sen. John McCain when he signed it.

Oh, and under his leadership, U.S.-led forces liberated Afghanistan, freeing countless women from the oppression of the Taliban.

As happens with all great men, Dubya's strengths are his weaknesses. He doesn't want to boast about his accomplishments, so he settles for being misunderstood. He is the rare politician who rewards loyalty — but goes too far. He is steadfast and sure of who his friends are — but insufficiently aware of who his friends could be. He confuses having nicknames for Democratic congressmen, or hosting a ceremony for the Kennedys, with bipartisanship. He does not understand that bipartisanship is not about perks and shoulder pats, but giving the other side a place at the table.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate