WASHINGTON--In response to the ice storm which recently swept through the nation's capital, the White House has created a special task force to deal with the problem of unsafe sledding. According to Press Secretary Tony Snow, "the president believes that children shouldn't be left behind on the snow slope or in the school room."
Sources at the White House report that political adviser Karl Rove came up with the idea as a means of distinguishing President George W. Bush from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have made expanded business regulation a top priority. "The public will understand that only the president cares enough to make sledding safe. Only he stands up for our nation's children," said one top Bush aide.
The Commission to Save Children through Safe Sledding is headed by Vice President Richard Cheney, thought to be intent on softening his harsh public image. His office issued a statement pointing out that thousands of people, many of them children under the age of 16, require emergency room care annually after sledding accidents. "There was an epidemic of fractures and concussions after the February storm," the vice president observed. Worse, "literally hundreds of thousands of children might be hurt" in coming years if the government doesn't act, he said.
House Republican Leader John Boehner lauded the administration for being willing to "protect the helpless, poor, and disadvantaged." An aide to Republican Whip Roy Blunt portrayed the new initiative as "a continuation of policies pursued by the GOP majority," such as No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit. "It should be obvious that we've only paid lip service to our limited government rhetoric for years," he added.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, perhaps the most conservative member of the Cabinet, was reportedly named Commission vice chairman over her protests. "You can bet she didn't volunteer for it," explained a political appointee who declined to be named: "She doesn't even plan to attend any meetings, unless it becomes absolutely necessary."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derided the new presidential initiative as being too little, too late. "Dozens of kids were injured in the latest storm because the administration did nothing over the last six years," she charged. Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, announced the he would hold hearings exploring ties between the sled industry and the administration. He told reporters: "It's the insane pursuit of profit that causes companies to turn out unsafe sleds. If only business fulfilled its social responsibility, there wouldn't be a problem. But the Bush administration refuses to act; under the control of the vice president, the federal government has become merely a tool of corporate interests."
When asked about the Democratic attacks, President Bush said that "we shouldn't blame anyone. We should just work together and get the job done." At his daily press briefing Tony Snow portrayed the sledding panel as a natural outgrowth of the president's vision of compassionate conservatism.
THE COMMISSION WILL BE FREE to recommend any policies that it desires. Still, self-regulation probably will not be enough, explained Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Levitt. He said the president envisioned a public-private partnership, with Uncle Sam as senior partner. "There's so much that government can do if we don't feel constrained by limits," he explained.
New York Times columnist David Brooks endorsed the initiative as one that could involve "the assistance of literally thousands of the best and brightest across the nation." Brooks, long an advocate of "national greatness conservatism," argued that the safe sledding campaign could help move America away from its tradition of heedless hedonistic individualism. Mike Gerson, newly emancipated from the White House and writing a column for Newsweek, scoffed at "troglodyte conservatives who put an abstract love of liberty ahead of the protection of children."
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) tentatively endorsed the task force, but said that the initiative should be much broader. "I am introducing legislation to create The Commission for a Safe Childhood," she announced. In a major speech on the Senate floor, laying forth what aides say will be a signature campaign issue, she declared that her plan "offers us an opportunity to completely change the way children play, the way human beings respond to winter, and the way we all relate to one another in this cosmos. It will help all of human existence to have meaning."
Former Clinton pollster Dick Morris warned that Sen. Clinton might be able to ride her child protection proposal to the White House. "The Republicans have to take this very seriously," he told NewsMax.com. He proposed replacing Vice President Cheney with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as Commission chairman. "Cheney's irrelevant, a lame duck," said Morris. "Only Condi can defeat Hillary, and she needs a more important, higher profile post than Secretary of State," he explained.
The Commission's expected executive director, who refused to speak on the record until his appointment was confirmed, said that he leaned towards an outright ban on sledding, though he feared unpleasant political repercussions since children might not "understand that it is for their own good." His nightmare scenario was a children's protest march on the White House.
Former Vice President Al Gore sarcastically complimented the Bush administration for "finally getting around to the sledding crisis," but worried that it wouldn't seize the opportunity for broader action. He suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency require the filing of an environmental impact statement before a hill can be used for sledding. Doing so would "be good for children and good for the environment," he explained. The fact that snow and ice have been falling in prodigious quantities throughout much of the Midwest and Northeast further proves the existence of global warming, he insisted: "If the warming gets any worse, we're likely to find ourselves in a new ice age."
Consumer activist Ralph Nader said there wouldn't be any problem if only the federal government controlled all hill use. At the very least, he suggested, Congress should set speed limits on any hill suitable for sledding. Surprisingly, a vice presidential aide voiced tentative agreement. "We've been trying to think up something relaxing for troops to do after they get back from Iraq. Snow-sledding enforcement duty could be part of their normal rotation," he allowed.
But Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) prefers forcing business to create a safe sled. "With the EPA, OSHA, and Consumer Product Safety Commission working together, anything is possible," he explained. Sen. Kennedy acknowledged that his proposal would likely face opposition from "extremist Republicans who want to tear down the regulations that have made America great."
LAST WEEK CONGRESS RUSHED through an appropriation for the Commission, including enough money for a round-the-world fact-finding tour to study how other nations handle the problem of unsafe sledding. The first stop will be Tahiti, announced Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) which, he pointed out, "has no, that's none at all, injuries from sledding. We've got to figure out how they do it."
The importance of the new initiative to the administration was evidenced by the First Lady's decision to serve as an ex officio member. "How can children read books if they've suffered a concussion out on the slopes," asked Laura Bush?
The response among conservatives was muted. Presidential candidate John McCain said that he "shared the President's commitment to safe sledding" and hoped "the Congress and administration could work together." He warned "right-wing political activists" that criticism of the idea would fall under the campaign restrictions which he had pushed through Congress.
Blogger Hugh Hewitt signed on without reservation: "The Bush administration is the gold standard for conservatives," he explained. Hoover's Victor Davis Hanson wrote that caring for children is a principle that runs back to Pericles.
Others, however, were less certain. National Review editorialized that "we understand why the president cares about children, but the Commission easily could go too far." The idea was criticized at a weekly conservative meeting last Wednesday. "Whenever I think it can't get any worse," one declared as he left the off-the-record session, "it gets worse."
Press Secretary Tony Snow rejected such criticism. He explained: "Conservatism is dead. Long live conservatism. We now define what conservatism is."
The Commission's first meeting is scheduled for April 1.
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