Bush's radical agenda

March 10, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Judging from the much ado about gay marriage, one might conclude that the country has run out of more serious issues to worry about.

President Bush, to the delight of his conservative base, is pushing for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The move clearly is part of his administration's effort to focus public attention on the culture war rather than on the shooting war in Iraq that continues to plague him.

In making Iraq part of the war on terrorism when it originally wasn't, he relies on his showboat brand of patriotism to counter the Democratic criticism that has been gaining steam throughout the primary election season.

The Democrats and their presumptive nominee, Sen. John Kerry, have yet to drive home, however, the one reality that the American public seems not yet to have recognized: that Mr. Bush is pursuing not a conservative agenda, but a radical one, abroad as well as at home.

Despite the failure of the administration to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction cited to justify the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, the Democrats appear incapable of making this unnecessary war the centerpiece of their case against Mr. Bush's re-election.

The truly radical Bush Doctrine, expanded since the invasion to a grand scheme to turn the whole Middle East into an oasis of democracy, has rolled over a compliant Congress that backed Mr. Bush's war resolution in the fall of 2002.

While investigations go forward despite White House foot-dragging on why 9/11 happened and on intelligence WMD failings, Congress still declines to explore the destructive course of the Bush Doctrine in American foreign policy.

Mr. Kerry has been hindered in taking on the doctrine by virtue of his tortured support of the Bush war resolution. And with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean defanged by the voters, the party is left with challenging Mr. Bush on the chaotic aftermath of the invasion in Iraq, not on the invasion itself.

On the domestic front as well, radical is the applicable word for the Bush policy of advocating further tax cuts for the rich in the face of a mushrooming federal deficit and the administration's dismal failure to counter joblessness in an alleged economic recovery.

On this front, at least, the Democrats are aggressively noting the radical turnaround in the nation's fiscal health from the federal surpluses of the Clinton years (with, to be sure, the cooperation of the Republican Congress on spending limits) to today's massive deficits.

The president, playing the patriotism card for all he's worth in speeches and television advertising, has had some success in shoring up public support for his conduct of the war on terrorism. The latest Washington Post-ABC News indicates more than six of 10 still back him on it.

But overall, the ship of state is showing serious leakage. The same poll finds that 57 percent of Americans surveyed think the country needs a new direction from that set by Mr. Bush. With the Democrats hammering away in primary states plagued by unemployment and blue-collar complaints against U.S. trade policies, the administration has been guilty of inept politics.

Rosy projections of job creation have had to be pulled back. Claims that the most recent recession occurred on Bill Clinton's watch have been refuted by nonpartisan economic experts. The Democrats have gleefully seized on an administration official's observation that overseas outsourcing of jobs can be a good thing. Finally, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's suggestion that Social Security benefits might have to be cut was an observation the president could have done without.

On environmental protection issues, too, a week scarcely goes by without an administration announcement of a rollback on some regulation that the Democrats grab to cast Mr. Bush as a heartless wretch.

All this adds up to what may be one of the most ideologically driven fights for the presidency in years, with the Republican candidate hewing to his radical course and his Democratic opponent painted as just another Massachusetts liberal.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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