From the New York Times, January 15th, 2003
Running Fast Into the Past
By MAUREEN DOWD
George W. Bush designed his entire political career and presidency to make sure he would never face this moment.
The moment where he would pick up USA Today one morning midway through his term and read that his stratospheric approval numbers were dropping because more and more people think he is out of touch with average Americans.
For the first time since 9/11, Mr. Bush’s ratings have slipped below 60 percent in a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll that reflects growing unease with his approach on the economy and taxes, domestic policy and international threats.
Craig Patterson, a 45-year-old ironworker in St. Louis worried about dwindling construction jobs, summed it up for USA Today: “I trust Bush with my daughter, but I trust Clinton with my job.”
Mr. Bush and Karl Rove may be disproving Santayana: They have dedicated themselves to learning from the history of the first President Bush, and yet they seem doomed to repeat it anyway.
Bush Senior was fired by voters who thought he was aloof from their economic suffering, overly consumed with foreign affairs and insulated by an inner circle of rich white patricians. He did little to appease his conservative base and, after the ’88 campaign, chafed at being positioned by strategists. In his re-election campaign he was reduced to pleading: “Message: I care.”
W. and Mr. Rove tried to reverse the playbook, coddling their base and being hard-nosed on tactics. The strategist packaged the younger Bush as a leader who cared, even if his compassion never evolved from slogan to policy, even if his concern for those in need of stock dividend tax breaks trumped his concern for those in need of stem cell research.
So the pair, fresh from their midterm triumph, must be flabbergasted to hear the same sort of complaints that tripped up Poppy: a Bush favoring rich Republicans and tone-deaf to the alarms of ordinary Americans.
In the new poll, Mr. Bush is still seen as a strong and decisive leader whom the American people want to support. They liked his tough talk after 9/11; they did not want America to be pushed around, or seem afraid.
But in these anxious times, people are uneasy about the inconsistency of his foreign policy and the inflexibility of his domestic agenda, with conservatives setting the pace at home and in Iraq.
It’s hard to understand the economic or political logic of Mr. Bush’s relentless tax cuts. Felix Rohatyn wryly suggests that, if you want to push the Dow up a few percentage points, it would be better to take the $360 billion in tax breaks and use it to just buy stocks directly.
The states are struggling with giant deficits, tax increases and cutbacks in programs so severe that some are releasing prisoners. So what good will it do to put Mr. Bush’s little tax break in one pocket while taking money from the other pocket to pay higher state taxes?
Despite their desire to support their president, many Americans are uncomfortable with the ideological rigidity of the administration — the headlong tax cuts unashamedly benefiting the wealthy; the selection of judges who want to reverse two decades of social policy; the moves to impose new restrictions on abortion, and the deletion of information on a Centers for Disease Control Web site about lifesaving condoms, which are viewed by the religious right as morally wrong.
It’s equally hard to fathom the president’s bipolar approach to nuclear threats. Yesterday he hurled new ultimatums at Saddam Hussein. “I’m sick and tired of games and deception,” he said, even as he responded to Kim Jong Il’s games and deception with pleas and promises to send food and oil to Pyongyang. There are inspectors in Iraq who are not finding nuclear weapons, while inspectors have been kicked out of North Korea, which has admitted to a nuclear weapons program.
So what’s the message here? If Saddam had already developed nukes, we’d send him a fruit basket? But since he hasn’t, we’ll send him Tomahawk missiles. We know Saddam’s weak, but we’re pretending he’s strong so America can walk tall by whupping him.
North Korea used its own version of our pre-emptive strike doctrine to blackmail us, and make the administration’s global swaggering look suspiciously selective.
And where in the name of Rummy is Osama?