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Bush’s America

From his irresponsible tax cut to his assault on the environment, the president is doing the right-wing thing

GEORGE W. BUSH’S $1.6 trillion tax cut isn’t just the centerpiece of his agenda — it’s the perfect metaphor for his presidency.

It’s terrible public policy. He and his advisers have deliberately misrepresented how much it would cost and where the money would come from. (In fact, the tax cut would be paid for through a massive raid on the Social Security trust fund, which Bush unctuously vows to protect.) It would disproportionately benefit the corporate contributors and wealthy voters who put him in office. And it flies in the face of the moderate, centrist tone he tried to strike during his presidential campaign. (Although, to be fair, Bush touted his tax cut loudly and frequently on the campaign trail last year. Maybe that’s why he lost the popular election to Al Gore by more than a half-million votes.)

Four months into Bush II, it’s clear that progressive politics and values are facing the biggest threat since Ronald Reagan proclaimed Morning in America. If you’ll recall, Bush’s very first action was to cut off federal funds to international agencies that provide abortion counseling and services, thus undoing an executive order by Bill Clinton. So much for compassionate conservatism. As Slate pundit Jacob Weisberg recently observed, Bush has been far more competent and far more conservative than anyone expected him to be. That’s a dangerous combination.

As the Phoenix goes to press, it appears likely that Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont will leave the Republican Party and become either a Democrat or an independent, giving the Democrats tenuous control of the Senate. Perhaps that will give Democrats the impetus they need to mount a real, sustained fight against Bush’s proposals. There’s no doubt that such a fight is needed. Consider the record to date:

• Presidential appointments. Early on, Democrats fought ineffectively to stop, or at least slow down, the confirmation of Bush’s choices for attorney general (religious-right zealot John Ashcroft) and secretary of the interior (anti-environmentalist Gale Norton). And the right-wingers just keep coming.

The latest is Theodore Olson, Bush’s choice for solicitor general, the lawyer who argues on behalf of the government before the Supreme Court. Olson is a rabid Republican activist; as has been widely acknowledged, he would be the most ideological solicitor general in history. This is especially dangerous given the solicitor general’s unique role. He or she serves as what legal analyst Lincoln Caplan, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, called “the 10th justice,” providing the Court with guidance and acknowledging the flaws in the government’s positions.

Fortunately, there’s a chance that Olson, who barely escaped a perjury rap during his days as a Reagan-administration official and who led Bush’s legal team during the Florida recount, may be rejected. Thanks largely to the dogged reporting of Salon, we now know that Olson was almost certainly a key participant in the “Arkansas Project,” a million-dollar-plus effort funded by shadowy right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton and publish it in the American Spectator. In addition to the sheer sordidness of the project (which included spreading the lie that Vincent Foster was murdered at Clinton’s behest), the Spectator’s actions may have violated its tax-exempt status. Olson — as has been his pattern over the years — denies all.

• The environment. The notion that Bush is an enemy of the environment is at least partially exaggerated. He was unfairly criticized for deferring new regulations regarding arsenic in drinking water: the regulations had been delayed by Clinton for years, and the arsenic, which affects only a few communities, occurs naturally. Bush will likely promulgate a more realistic standard at some point. Likewise, his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming was, in some ways, preferable to the cynicism of Clinton, who paid it lip service but who had no intention of submitting it to the Senate, where it would have died a swift and certain death.

But Bush is clearly a president who cares little about the environment. While he was governor of Texas, Houston’s air became the most heavily polluted in the country. One of his first acts as president was to break a campaign pledge to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants. CO2 is the key contributor to global warming.

Though Clinton was indifferent on environmental issues, Gore was a genuine environmentalist. Bush’s anti-environmental stance is an opportunity lost.

• Energy policy. Nearly eight years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton convened a series of meetings to draft a massive new universal-health-care program. The secrecy of those meetings threw the right wing into a fit of apoplexy, and became part of its arsenal in destroying any hope of health-care reform. Yet when Dick Cheney held secret meetings to draft a new energy plan — meetings attended largely by the oil-industry executives who put him and Bush into the White House — hardly anyone raised an eyebrow.

Make no mistake: the result should be dead on arrival. The plan gives conservation short shrift, despite a study, reported last week on National Public Radio, showing that state-of-the-art conservation technology could cut our energy use by 20 percent with no decrease in our quality of life. Under the plan, power-plant emissions from the Midwest, which drift across New England and burn our eyes and lungs, will not be regulated. Nuclear power will be encouraged despite never-answered questions about safety and radioactive-waste disposal. And the Bushies want to drill for oil everywhere, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the ocean floor.

What’s truly frightening about the Bush presidency is that he and his merry band have been able to move forward in a vacuum. The Democratic congressional leaders, Senator Tom Daschle and Representative Dick Gephardt, have been pathetically ineffectual, from the rusty muffler they waved in front of the Capitol to their wooden response to Bush’s State of the Union message, which projected all the sincerity and warmth of a hostage tape.

The media have been even worse. After eight years of snarling and snapping at Clinton, they have rolled over like credulous puppies for Bush, praising his administration’s efficiency and rarely asking him any tough questions about policy (see “Don’t Quote Me,” page one). So abject is their performance that one journalist, the Washington Post’s John Harris, recently argued that the problem is that there’s no liberal equivalent to the right-wing scandal machine that fed the press for the past eight years. No, Mr. Harris, the real problem is that the mainstream media have been insufficiently skeptical of, and confrontational toward, a president who entered the White House despite losing the popular vote. Then, too, Bush’s corporate orientation fits well with the megacorporations that own big media today — witness Michael Powell, the new FCC chairman, who vows to remove the few remaining barriers to media consolidation.

George W. Bush continues to lack a mandate for his presidency and for his reactionary policy agenda. But unless the Democrats find their backbone and the media find their conscience, he’s going to get away with far more than even he might have ever thought possible.

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Issue Date: May 24-31, 2001

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