In the last two weeks, President Bush has come in for harsh criticism, most pointedly from his conservative supporters. Byron York, writing repeatedly and effectively in National Review Online, detailed the administration's failure to support and defend Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. as a nominee for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, quoted March 28 in the Washington Times's "Inside Politics," said, ""Conservatives find it difficult to understand why President Bush, who promised during his campaign to veto just the sort of campaign-finance bill Congress sent to his desk [McCain-Feingold], decided to sign it."
And on April 1, the Weekly Standard's David Brooks, ordinarily so careful in laying the predicate, exploded in an essay so overwrought that it looked like someone had chopped off the first two paragraphs. It climaxed in this passage: "After six months of wonderfully moral handling of the war, suddenly Dick Morris seems to be running things. First there was the dreadful decision on the steel tariffs, then the McCain-Feingold maneuver, and then the cynical turn of our policy in the Middle East." Rough stuff.
Any of these questions may be legitimately debated. But critics have lost sight of the essential George W. Bush. Like Ronald Reagan, he keeps his eye on a couple of big things. For now, Bush has decided he can accomplish two of those big things. He can defeat terrorism abroad, while, at home, he can regain control of the Senate for Republicans. For the rest, he'll bob and weave, and do his best to avoid consuming conflicts with the Democrat-controlled Senate or the mainstream media.
That decision may be argued -- and indeed, it is being argued, loudly -- but critics ought to allow that it is a decision, not just a default position, and not simply weakness. In fact, it represents a political strategy of breathtaking brinksmanship and long-range vision. Both at home and abroad, in the Bush view, America confronts a kind of eschatological crisis -- the end times, literally, for a certain kind of world and domestic civilization.
Abroad, that's easier to see. Behind all the tut-tutting about the Bush foreign policy ("de-stabilizing the region," etc.) lies a very real fear, a fear Bush is willing to confront, and that his critics are not: World civilization itself will be re-shaped by American actions. If it is not re-shaped by American action, it will be re-shaped by American inaction. Bush has bitten down firmly on this bullet. If, in doing that, he remains more than a little tight-lipped, we should not be surprised. This is not a recap of 1991, or 1967, or 1948, or any of the other oft-tolled dates in Mideast history. This is 1941.
At home, there is a crisis of end-times proportions in the political world. Republican and Democrat operatives alike looked at the famous USA Today red-and-blue map of Election 2000, and in it they read the lineaments of political doom. Democrats saw Texas and Florida governed by Bushes, and knew they could not control the country with just California, New York, and the Volvo states -- the rest of the map was hopeless. Republicans saw that, if Democrats buried Texas and Florida the way they had flooded California -- primarily via Hispanic immigration -- the GOP would be reduced to permanent minority status, and the federal system would effectively come to an end, as the country was ruled by the seaboard elites.
Tactically, this political Armageddon focuses on the judiciary and on law enforcement. As often observed, the key elements of the liberal agenda -- abortion, affirmative action, the tobacco lawsuits, environmental activism -- never could have gained traction through representative voting. The program required a judicial end-run, and activist judges to implement it. From the Democrats' perspective, the judiciary and law enforcement look very different. They're trying to get away with something. Seen from that angle, the Democrats' Bolshevik solidarity in defending President Clinton was an absolute necessity. If Republicans could bust a Democrat President, they could bust anybody. And Democrats are legally vulnerable for the various frauds (campaign finance, voting) that support their majorities in states like Missouri, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan. Thus the high-profile mau-mauing of Republicans by the Carvilles and Shrums and McAulliffes of the DNC. They cannot allow the Republicans to feel confident in their control of the Justice Department or of the various U.S. Attorney offices throughout the country.
Electorally, the end-game battle focuses on the Spanish-speaking immigrant population of the U.S., the largest single foreign-language immigrant group ever to enter this country. George W. Bush thinks he can win votes in this constituency. Democrats are outraged that he would even try. On March 23, speaker emeritus of the California state assembly Antonio Villaraigosa, delivering the Democrats' weekly radio address, "blasted" (in the words of the Los Angeles Times' headline) Bush for "an orchestrated strategy to curry favor with Latino voters in the United States." The unspoken outrage? "Those are our voters. You can't do that."
Will the two-pronged Bush strategy work? Some serious conservative observers (like John O'Sullivan) think the Spanish voter strategy is silly, that the Democrats' welfare state appeals will trump Republican economic and moral values every time. The President obviously thinks otherwise. His brother has married a Spanish-speaking woman and converted to Catholicism; George W. himself speaks rapid fluent commercial Texican, and he has a feel for the Mexican people and a friend in the Mexican President.
But there should be no doubt about what he's up to. Bush himself said it, as reported by Reuters on March 27: "These Senate races are very important for me. I want the Republicans to take control of the Senate."
Without the Senate, the President can't take full control of the executive branch. He cannot appoint the judges who will stall the liberal agenda, and entertain the prosecution of Democrat crimes. And with a Democrat Senate echoing the mainstream press, he cannot successfully ignore the media, with its Tar Baby issues like campaign finance reform.
So when the news turns troublesome, at home and abroad, and the President seems to playing it cute, a little understanding is called for. George W. Bush thinks he knows how to win. So far, it seems that he does. He also knows how not to lose. Contemporary political discourse is dominated by the delusional: campaign finance reform, racial profiling, global warming, second-hand smoke, and all the rest. For a Republican President, it's a Brer Rabbit play, a mug's game, to take on any of these issues without a Republican Senate as backstop. The press would tie him in knots, and the Democrats in the Senate would help.
George W. Bush will not kick those Tar Babies. Not now.
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