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Bush Must Learn Father’s Political Lessons

By W. James Antle III


President Bush needs to make sure that he has learned from his father’s mistakes. He has acknowledged that the George Bush who was the 41st president of the United States failed to use the political capital he accumulated at the conclusion of the Gulf War to implement needed domestic policy reforms, some of which might have been able to resuscitate the economy and salvage his failed reelection bid in 1992.

The stakes are no smaller for the Bush in the White House right now. Crass as it may seem given the grave events of the last month, domestic politics matter and President Bush can ill afford to ignore them. Doing so not only jeopardizes his reelection chances in 2004, but also adversely impacts the two biggest national priorities: the war on terrorism and economic renewal.

George Herbert Walker Bush faced a Congress where the Democrats were every bit as partisan as those currently opposing his son. They barely authorized the use of force against Iraq in Kuwait (while the House approved the relevant resolution by 250 to 183, the margin in the Senate was only 52 to 47) and pushed him into a disastrous budget deal that raised taxes, compounded economic problems and failed to reduce the deficit. While he tried to maintain the perception that he was "above politics," George Mitchell and the remainder of his opponents did not let up on politics even as Gen. Schwarzkopf’s army rolled over Saddam’s elite Republican Guard.

Sen. Tom Daschle’s refusal to even pretend to cooperate on judicial nominations demonstrates that George W. Bush cannot feign aloofness from partisan reality either. This means that he must continue to work with those across party lines wherever possible in an effort to unite the country, but he must also promote a distinct agenda wherever this is impossible.

This means that President Bush must not compromise on his previously enacted tax cuts. Some are calling on him to scale back reductions in the top marginal income tax rates to demonstrate good faith to the Democrats and perhaps win other tax cuts as part of a fiscal stimulus package. Not only is this suggestion bad policy, as the greatest incentive enhancements come from lowering marginal tax rates at their highest levels, it would not produce its desired political effects. Such a retreat would only embolden further efforts to nullify the Bush tax cut and replace it with increased government spending, in a misguided attempt at Keynesian demand-side stimulus. Instead, Bush should push for deep cuts in the capital gains tax, expanded tax-free use of IRA funds, accelerated rate reductions and either revamping or abolishing legislated depreciation. Such policies are truly pro-growth, which is exactly what the economy needs at this point.

Now more than ever the president must honor his pledge to American servicemen that "help is on the way." We are fighting what is likely to become a multifaceted war on terrorism that is currently in its Afghan phase, but it is unclear where else our troops may be put in harm’s way. Yet these same soldiers, sailors and pilots are still coping with the years of neglect our armed forces have suffered. US defense spending, now only 15 percent of the federal budget, has fallen from 6 percent of GDP during the Reagan years to around 3 percent at the end of the Clinton administration. Our army divisions have been cut from 18 to 10 and we have gone from 546 Navy ships to just 316. The Bush administration can no longer allow recalcitrant legislators to lump defense spending into budget politics.

Finally, President Bush cannot ignore the political reality of his role as leader of the Republican Party. While we are all Americans before we are Republicans, Democrats or any other political affiliation, even during wars a president’s ability to lead can be hampered by his party suffering defeats. Right now, there is a serious risk that Democrats will take the Virginia and New Jersey governorships, along with the New York City mayoralty, back from the GOP.

While the president can be forgiven for not wishing to expend political capital on Michael Bloomberg’s race to succeed Rudy, Virginia’s Mark Earley and New Jersey’s Bret Schundler are very worthy of support. Earley, a former attorney general running in an increasingly conservative state that Bush carried in November 2000, is closing his gap with Democrat Mark Warner. After trailing Warner for most of the summer, an October 19 Mason-Dixon poll shows the race as a statistical dead heat, with Earley at 42 percent and Warner at 45 percent. Schundler has a much more uphill battle, with an October 17 Quinnipac survey showing him trailing Democrat Jim McGreevey 49 percent to 39 percent.

Yet Schundler’s supporters have the intensity that McGreevey’s lack, and this does reflect progress for the former mayor of Jersey City. Schundler has a strong record of come-from-behind victories and syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock recently pointed out he does better among minorities than traditional Republican candidates. In his 1997 Jersey City mayoral race, he won 45 percent of the vote in predominantly black Ward F and carried predominantly Hispanic Ward E with 64 percent of the vote.

It is both easy and admirable to lose sight of politics in the midst of the war effort and recent terrorist atrocities. But successful presidencies require leadership on all fronts, and President Bush must remember that the success of his administration is also in the national interest.

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