With the passage of his irresponsible tax-cutting budget bill, George W. Bush once again demonstrated the clout of a president in “wartime” as well as the formidable political focus of his administration. Squabbling among Republicans in the House and Senate over the size of the tax cuts threatened to stall or even derail the bill. Bush, with his eye firmly on the 2004 presidential election, set a deadline for Republicans to make up, insisting that the budget be passed before Memorial Day. Recalcitrant Republicans were reminded that opposing the president is unpatriotic-that’s something Democrats do. And they were also reminded that George W. Bush’s extraordinary popularity might presage a historic political realignment, come November 2004. With Democrats on the defensive, now is no time for internal bickering.

Although the tax cuts were less than half what the president had proposed, Bush had no problem claiming victory for the so-called jobs-and-growth package, which according to some experts is still likely to cost the federal government $800 billion in lost revenues over the next ten years. That fits Bush’s political agenda perfectly. By starving the federal government of tax revenue, the budget will force a future president to choose between raising taxes or curtailing services and programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Instead of attacking popular federal social programs, the idea is to kill them off by shrinking the size of government. It is an article of faith among Republicans, of course, that the federal government (except the Pentagon) is too big, and that many of its functions should be abolished or devolve to the states.

Can Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress get away with such a cynical ploy? For the moment, the war on terrorism seems to provide enough cover. It is not clear whether the economy will eventually exact a price for such duplicity. Bush’s reckless fiscal policy is expected to run up a federal deficit of $400 billion this year, and has already shaken the confidence of foreign investors, as reflected in the dollar’s falling value against the euro. The specter of deflation and Japanese-style stagnation are now hot economic topics. None of this seems to deter the president. Bush and his handlers are betting that the American people will see the determined pursuit of tax cuts as yet another example of presidential “leadership.” Like the still unproved claim that Iraq posed an imminent threat, the specifics of the administration’s economic policy don’t have to add up. “They don’t care about the details,” Senator Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said of the views of the average voter. “Bush [has]...the political smarts to understand that the best medicine is to be seen as a leader making bold strokes, moving out on an issue where others are temporizing.”

Are voters really so indifferent or so easily duped? Is the mastery of appearances all that counts? Surely concern over whether the administration was telling the truth about Iraq, and alarms about the effects of massive deficits, are not mere temporizing. Where is the opposition party capable of making this case and engaging the American voter?

The Democrats are a notoriously fractious party, especially when measured against the ideological discipline of Republicans. With the Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, Democrats cannot easily command attention for an alternative set of policies. In the aftermath of the Republicans’ unprecedented gains in the 2002 off-year election, the Democrats have forged a more unified opposition, especially on fiscal and domestic policy. Still, Democrats lack a strong national leader, one able to reconcile opposing forces within the party and possessing the stature to contend with Bush on defense and foreign-policy issues. Whether such a leader will emerge from next year’s presidential primaries is unclear. What is clear is that the Democrats will have to do more than second-guess Bush on the war on terrorism and the economy. They will have to offer a strong, positive defense of good government to counter the Republicans’ incessant demands for tax cuts. Democrats will also have to convince voters that they are tough enough to use American power abroad but shrewd enough to recognize that unilateralism is not the best way to fight the war on terrorism.

Bush looks invulnerable at the moment. Equally daunting are the Republicans’ money machine and organizational energy. But the nation remains closely divided politically. With voters increasingly sophisticated and cynical about political advertising, each party has rediscovered the importance of mobilizing its base and getting out the vote. That may give a slight advantage to Democrats, as long as the voting machines work. Still “swing” voters will continue to play a crucial role in determining the outcome of elections, so candidates must master the art of squaring the circle of seemingly irreconcilable positions. For example, Bush’s ability to communicate his genuine concern for traditionally Democratic issues, such as education, was vital to his success.

The Democratic Party has an enormous problem with swing voters, especially Catholics alienated by the party’s “lifestyle liberalism.” A month before his death, former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan criticized the Democratic presidential candidates for their uniform and knee-jerk rejection of the ban on partial-birth abortion. That criticism should be taken to heart. If Democrats hope to forestall the emergence of a majority-based Republican Party, they will have to find a way to talk about abortion, sexual morality, religion, gay rights, and the family that honors the traditional moral concerns of Catholics and others. Yes, budget deficits and indefensible tax cuts are moral issues, too. But the rapport voters want to feel with politicians begins with acknowledgment of (not necessarily agreement on) more mundane values. Perhaps that’s what Bush knows about “leadership” that Democrats don’t. They should learn.

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Published in the 2003-06-06 issue: View Contents
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