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Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2002 / 29 Shevat, 5762

Michael Barone

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Toujours l'audace! --
MOST of the reaction to George W. Bush's audacious State of the Union message has focused on his virtual declaration of war against the "axis of terror"-North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. And rightly so. The first stage of the war against terrorism, Afghanistan, is not over, and the second stage-the "low-hanging fruit" of Somalia, Yemen, and the Philippines-has only quietly begun, but Bush proclaimed a third stage, which seems likely to include an invasion of Iraq. The president was just as audacious on domestic policy. "Toujours l'audace!" proclaims a French military slogan-always boldness! Bush has heeded that advice, to the astonishment of our foreign enemies and the surprise of his domestic critics.

Bush started off by admitting the budget will be in deficit but saying it "will be small and short term, so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible manner." That means Bush will use his veto threat to hold the line on nondefense spending. That leaves Democrats and ap-propriators of both parties seething. But they know they can't win a public battle with a president with an 80 percent positive job rating.

Bush also threatened to confront Majority Leader Tom Daschle if he prevents the Senate from acting on energy and trade promotion authority bills. Ditto with the stimulus package, which Daschle has blocked in the hope that Democrats would score in November if voters focus on economic issues. But voters give Bush high job ratings on the economy and do not blame him for budget deficits; the January bipartisan Battleground poll shows them favoring Bush over congressional Democrats on improving the economy (46 percent to 35 percent) and balancing the federal budget (43 percent to 36 percent). Consequently, blocking action on the trade, energy, and stimulus bills is more likely to lose than gain votes for Democrats.

On Democrats' turf. In another show of boldness, Bush made mention of issues that Democrats have long claimed-the so-called patients' bill of rights, tax credits for health insurance for the uninsured, and prescription drugs as part of Medicare. Bush has a position on each that significantly differs from the Democrats', and he has shown he will press for his version. The outcome Bush seeks: new laws that Democrats won't like and that will deprive them of campaign issues. In the meantime, he moved quickly to deny them another potential campaign issue-Enron-by calling for 401(k) reform, stricter accounting standards, and tougher disclosure requirements for corporations.

Bush was similarly bold in repeating his call for "personal retirement accounts for younger workers who choose them" as part of Social Security. This is an issue Republican House members would like to avoid and one that Democrats will latch onto as alleged evidence that Republicans would deprive retirees of benefits. But large majorities agree with Bush when the issue is framed his way-more choices for youngsters, guaranteed benefits for oldsters. He seems determined to use his political capital to avoid damage among the elderly and make gains among the young.

Bush's boldness comes as evidence mounts that the Republican Party has gained strength since September 11. For about three months, polls showed relatively little change in the close divide between the two parties, evident since 1995. But polls in December and January show a shift toward Republicans. Ipsos-Reid bimonthly polls before September 11 showed 46 percent of voters identifying as Democrats and 37 percent as Republicans. After September 11, it has been 43 percent Democrats, 42 percent Republicans. Eight national polls in January showed Republicans ahead in generic vote (which party's candidate you would vote for in the House) by 42 percent to 40 percent. Most pre-September 11 polls had Democrats ahead. And that question has been less favorable to Republicans since 1995 than the eventual vote. Democratic pollster Peter Hart prefers to ask which party voters would like to control Congress; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal January poll indicated Republicans by 44 percent to 40 percent.

Bush strategist Karl Rove looks back to William McKinley, who was elected with 51 percent of the vote in 1896 but whose successful war and domestic policies built that up to a solid Republican majority for years ahead. In a politics with an even partisan split, Rove says, "Small, permanent changes are critical." George W. Bush has shown a boldness that neither enemies nor critics expected. Now we will see whether it makes this small partisan change permanent.

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone