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Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2001 / 6 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Bill Schneider

William
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The new political world

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- BEFORE September 11, the Democrats had President Bush cornered. They were going to make him to break his promise not to touch the social security lockbox. Then they were going to force the President to back down on prescription drug coverage and a patients' bill of rights and maybe even modify his tax cut.

That was then. This is now.

In the new political world, politics has acquired a new gravity. It's about important things, like life and death. Politicians who were tiring of the game, like Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), see an opportunity to make a difference. "Now is clearly not the time to leave," Thompson said when he announced his decision to seek another term.

For the time being, politics has gone underground. Petty bickering and ideological posturing are bad form. What's good form? Bipartisanship and more activist government. But on a limited agenda.

Last week's Gallup poll asked the public to rate the nation's highest priority issues. Terrorism was at the top, along with national defense, foreign affairs and the economy. A majority rated each of those issues "extremely important," ratings that were 20 to 30 points higher than when George W. Bush took office in January. For example, just 17 percent of Americans considered foreign affairs extremely important in January. Now 52 percent do.

The nation's agenda is, number one, terrorism. And number two, the economy. Anything else? Most Americans no longer rank education, social security and medicare, prescription drugs for seniors or a patients' bill of rights as "extremely important." Each has dropped 10 to 15 points since June, even though the poll did not ask people to choose one issue over another. Those issues are just not high priorities right now.

The agenda has shifted to physical and economic security, where the President has the upper hand. As a result, the political playing field has tilted back toward the Republicans. Over the summer, Democrats were building up a big lead when voters were asked which party they wanted to see control Congress (Democrats led 43 to 34 percent in the August Gallup poll). Now it's nearly a tie (Republicans lead by one point in the Gallup and Time Magazine polls, both taken this month).

The shift to a new agenda has gotten Republicans off the hook -- for the time being. And shut down the bandwagon Democrats were hoping to ride to victory in next year's congressional elections.

The political playing field has also shifted in favor of incumbents. At a time of crisis, voters want stability, not change. You can see it in the new ads being run in this year's state and local races. In Virginia, for instance, Mark Earley is running as the virtual incumbent: "As attorney general, Mark Earley made the safety and security of our families and our schools his top priority. . . . Mark Earley -- experienced leadership we know and trust."

Experience was a major advantage for Mark Green last week in his Democratic primary victory for mayor of New York. Two thirds of the city's Democratic primary voters said they approved of the job Rudy Giuliani was doing as mayor. And pro-Giuliani Democrats voted heavily for Green.

For eight months, President Bush has been dogged by questions about his legitimacy. And his competence. Those questions have been laid to rest. Bush's rating as a leader who "inspires confidence" has jumped 20 points in the Gallup poll; as someone who "understands complex issues," up 13. Moreover, the President's approval rating among Democrats has continued to climb, from 65 percent just after September 11 to 83 percent last week.

War is above politics. A war President is above politics. But underneath it all, there is still politics. House Republicans figured that out last week when they rammed a $100 billion tax cut package through the House Ways and Means Committee on a party line vote. It's an economic stimulus proposal that rides on President Bush's popularity, even though it goes considerably beyond what the President requested.

The new agenda does hold some danger for President Bush -- the same danger his father faced after the Gulf War. Polls show Republicans have a strong advantage over Democrats on terrorism. But on the economy, the two parties are rated about equal. It's hard to say which issue is going to be more salient to voters a year from now. If it's the war on terrorism, the GOP is likely to be in a strong position. If it's the economy, Republicans could have problems.

The record shows that even popular Presidents fighting popular wars face setbacks at the polls. Abraham Lincoln's grand new party, the Republicans, lost ground during the Civil War. Just a year after Pearl Harbor, voters handed Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats a big setback at the polls. And how did a grateful nation show its thanks to President George Bush a year after the Gulf War? It fired him.

This President Bush may have more leeway on the economy than his father did. Before September 11, it was the Bush economy. Now it's the Osama bin Laden economy. Moreover, the victory over Iraq ten years ago was swift and decisive. President Bush had to deal with a bad economy after the Gulf War ended, whereas the current war on terrorism threatens to stretch on for months or even years. A bad peace economy is a much bigger problem, politically, than a bad war economy.

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10/08/01: On political war
10/01/01: The "born-again" president
09/25/01: Making America squirm
09/14/01: The American spirit will not wane
09/10/01: What Dubya knows about the budget
08/13/01: Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized
08/09/01: Bush backers out to remake prez yet again
07/30/01: Will the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out?
07/23/01: Both political parties are full of ....
07/16/01: Empowered moderate Republicans
07/09/01: As goes New Jersey, so goes the nation?
07/02/01: Dubya: Like father, like son?
06/15/01: The new soccer moms
06/05/01: Deals or deadlock?
05/29/01: The War Between the States is heating up again
05/21/01: The answer is men
05/10/01: Bush v. Carter?

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© 2001, William Schneider