Nothing's new about this Bush

March 26, 2001|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- In the long-ago days of the Nixon administration, the early days before the fall, folks in the White House liked to repeat this little mantra: "Watch what we do, not what we say." The new Bush insiders could pick up that line.

In their first 60 days in power, the new Bushmen have said very little and shown themselves to be just good old-fashioned Republicans. They are not in the talky business of cultural warfare. They are in the what's-good-for-business-is-good-for-America business.

The coming together of the new rulers at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to Capitol Hill and back, is on an agenda that is pro-business and anti-worker, pro-banking and anti-borrower, pro-oil and anti-environment, pro-rich, pro-unilateralism abroad and pro-investors at home.

This is what they have done, or are doing, or just are:

The president's tax-cut proposals are the same ones Republicans have advocated since the 1920s. Give breaks to the investing class, as the president's father called his friends, and they will use their spare cash to make more, investing in corporations that will create the jobs to give most of the people enough money to buy houses and cars, and vacations and college educations. Trickle-down theory -- it still works for better and for worse.

Among the Republicans' very first moves was the elimination of President Clinton's last-minute grandstanding on work rules designed to give some protection to employees gradually heading toward the new crippling caused by repetitive motion.

The danger now is not slow death from black lung or brown lung, asbestos or radiation poisoning. The danger is from tapping the same key until parts of your body slowly tighten and freeze in pain. New industries are just as eager to avoid common-sense responsibility and cost as the owners of coal mines and textile mills were in the last industrial revolution.

Favoring lenders over borrowers. The Congress' first order, thinking recession was on the way, was to pass legislation making it more difficult for ordinary people to use bankruptcy as a last resort to get out from under usurious -- a fancy word for loan-sharking -- consumer credit debt. The move was in the great Reagan tradition. He was the Republican who eliminated old usury regulations so that banks and other credit-card issuers could charge unthinking consumers rates of 20 percent and more -- and with luck keep them in bondage forever.

The president and vice president, oilmen both, have seized on the phrase "energy crisis" to push old oil company plans to drill in parklands and nature preserves. One of their quiet symbolic actions was to fire a contract employee of the U.S. Geological Survey, a man named Ian Thomas, for routinely posting on a government Web site maps of Arctic preserves where new drilling is now being considered.

The president quickly reneged on a campaign pledge concerning global warming, which he may not have understood, to "establish mandatory reduction targets" for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and automobiles. Energy companies, particularly coal companies, pressured Republican members of Congress to demand that the president back down before they took up his tax bill. It took only a couple of days to persuade him to get with the program.

The new president quickly absorbed his party's institutional memory, informing the American Bar Association that this White House might cut loose from the informal arrangement whereby the association rated judicial nominees on "competence, integrity and temperament."

What that is about is the simmering anger going back at least to 1987 when the ABA raised questions about appellate Judge Robert Bork before declaring him "well qualified" for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Conservatives still blame the ABA for the fact that Mr. Bork was not approved by the Senate. Now they want to put the ABA on notice: Approve our guys or else!

The new administration wants to get U.S. military men out of Bosnia and Kosovo and close down any contacts with North Korea. It's not so much the danger or cost of being part of the world, but a kind of feeling that such places are not worth the trouble. The Balkans, like other places President Bush does not want to deal with, are just filled with foreigners.

So it goes. The new thing about the new president is that there's nothing new. After all the talk about a New Right, the Republicans have produced a man of the ordinary Old Right.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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