Bush accused of politicizing war after promoting bipartisanship

Democrats say president is cashing in while helping Republicans campaign

March 31, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On a fund-raising blitz last week, President Bush spoke to Republican donors at lunches in South Carolina and Texas and at a dinner in Georgia. All told, the Republican Party raked in $4 million, thanks to its biggest money magnet - the man who sits in the White House.

As Bush made his swing through three states in two days, he urged police and firefighters to be ready for a terrorist attack, spoke of the importance of homeland security and talked about the success of the war in Afghanistan - sometimes in the same breath as he asked people to vote Republican.

That infuriated some Democrats, who are accusing Bush of politicizing the war. How can he call for bipartisanship in fighting terror, they ask, and then capitalize on the fervor surrounding the war in a partisan bid to elect Republicans?

"If the president goes and gives an education speech at Baylor University, then does a fund-raiser in Houston, fine; every president does that," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "But when you do political travel and intersperse it with homeland security events, you're politicizing something this president said ought not to be politicized."

The consternation from Democrats seems to signal further erosion in the harmony that had existed on the war. Bush's trip also might be the clearest sign yet that the president - who is under great pressure from fellow Republicans to get more involved in helping candidates in the November election - will not let the war limit his role as campaigner in chief.

As the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, vowed several months ago, the White House will highlight Bush's handling of the war to try to convince voters that Republicans are more able than Democrats to strengthen the military and protect the nation.

Bush's travels also underscored the lofty position he is in as he prepares to campaign more aggressively in coming months. Still enjoying soaring popularity and able to freely travel the country, he is hailing the success of the military campaign in Afghanistan while encouraging donors to contribute generously to his party.

"There is a time for politics," said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman. "This is an election year, and the president is going to help candidates who he believes would help him implement his agenda."

Asked about Democrats' complaints that Bush was politicizing the war, McClellan said such assertions were "ridiculous." He said the president always "goes out of his way to bring Americans together around the war on terrorism and homeland security."

For their part, Democrats, who have mostly been loath to criticize Bush for his handling of the war and his response to the attacks of Sept. 11, showed that they will be quick to object to signs that Bush is using the war on terrorism for political gain. But they are in a difficult spot: Americans overwhelmingly approve of Bush's management of the war and generally seem to rally around him when he talks about it.

Bush got a glowing reception Wednesday in Greenville, S.C., where he scheduled an event with police and firefighters to coincide with a luncheon that afternoon that brought in $1 million for Rep. Lindsey Graham, a Republican vying for the Senate seat to be vacated by Strom Thurmond.

"He shared a little bit about what his plans are [for homeland security], and he was quite encouraging," said Willie L. Johnson, Greenville's police chief.

"Did he come here just to do a political fund-raiser?" Johnson said. "Or to talk to people about protecting the homeland? Well, I guess he did both."

Flying to Atlanta the same day, Bush spoke at a dinner that drew $1.4 million for Rep. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who is hoping to unseat Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat. The president also held an event there with police and firefighters.

Although for months Democrats have been applauding the president at events in which he discusses homeland security, Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who represents Atlanta, boycotted Bush's appearance.

"They tagged on this meeting and rally in the name of homeland security," Lewis said. "Well, I saw it for what it is."

Lewis said that he and like-minded Democrats "are not going to sit idly by when he is trying to politicize military action that should be nonpartisan. The president is trying to use the effort in Afghanistan, and the efforts here at home, for political reasons."

White House aides countered that Bush finds it important to talk with people all over the country about urgent priorities. Further, they said, campaign committees reimburse the government for part of the cost of a president's travels for fund-raising events.

Aides to President Bill Clinton offered an identical defense when he faced a storm of criticism from Republicans who contended that Clinton - like Bush, a prolific and indispensable party fund-raiser - made frequent campaign trips on the government's tab.

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