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Bush critics rank economic worries over military win

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003

We know diplomacy is not George Bush's strong suit. Neither is fiscal responsibility. But as commander in chief, he knows how to do war, although it remains to be seen how well he does peace. No one ever doubted what the military outcome would be in Iraq. However, even Bush's harshest critics at home and abroad are shocked and awed by how quickly American and British military forces overwhelmed and crushed Saddam Hussein's brutal regime.

Once again, the U.S. military campaign against Iraq didn't follow the script written by pundits and military analysts, just as it didn't in the 1991 Persian Gulf War that ended with relatively few American casualties and a rout of Hussein's storied Republican Guard. This time, the skeptics barely got the word "quagmire" of their mouths before they were wishing they could take it back.

George W. Bush finished the job his father started in 1991, and the symbolic moment of triumph came on Wednesday, when jubilant Iraqis, with an assist from a U.S. tank, toppled Hussein's grand statue in downtown Baghad. The liberation of Iraq is almost complete, but raising a free, stable and democratic Iraq from the ruins may be the toughest challenge. It won't be cheap, and it won't be easy. But it will be the real measure of whether the blood and treasure invested in this war was worth it.

Going to war was a huge political gamble, and Bush's political strategists are breathing easier now that the war is all but won. The president's approval ratings are sky-high again, around 70 percent, and the administration doesn't plan to waste the moment. It is planning to use the president's postwar momentum to drive his domestic agenda through Congress.

That, too, is a big political gamble for the president. Bush's prescription for the economy is more tax cuts, more spending cuts and more deficits. His is more of an ideological agenda than an economic plan, and if he's lucky, moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill will save him from his worst instincts and help Democrats block another round of tax cuts the rich don't need and the government can't afford.

Bush and his political strategists know from recent history that presidents can win a war and lose an election. Going into the 1992 campaign, then-President George H. W. Bush had poll ratings of 90 percent in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But he lost the election to a former Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, who built his campaign around this mantra: "It's the economy, stupid." In a Gallup Poll conducted only a month before the election, Americans by 3 to 1 said they trusted Bush more than Clinton on international affairs. But on which candidate they preferred to manage the economy, they gave Clinton a huge advantage.

Could history repeat itself? Maybe. Bush's political aides apparently believe the key difference in the political situations of the father and son is 9/11, which has increased Americans' sense of insecurity. Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg told the Los Angeles Times: "Everything depends on whether in reality the war on terrorism is a new Cold War, ongoing, in which the commander in chief role is central and ever present for the president."

Greenberg makes a good point. If security is the overriding concern of voters, Democrats will be at a disadvantage. However, if it's the economy, Bush could be held accountable, just as his father was. Ironically, the first President Bush broke his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge in a compromise with Democrats. It was a responsible decision, even though it came too late to save his re-election bid. His son, however, has embarked on a reckless fiscal course. It's hard to find serious-minded people even in the corporate world who believe Bush's tax cuts will jump-start the economy, and some fear that it could make things worse.

Last week, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, some of the nation's best minds (former Sens. Sam Nunn, Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey; former Treasury Secretaries Peter G. Petersen and Robert Rubin; and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker) warned that more tax cuts are neither "fiscally nor morally responsible." They urged Congress to exercise restraint on both revenue and spending "to prevent fiscal policy from spiraling out of control."

Bush has proposed a tax cut of $726-billion, which the House has approved. The Senate reduced the package to $350-billion, and a few moderate Republicans have joined Democrats in saying no more. "Given the rapidly deteriorating long-term fiscal outlook," these former government officials wrote, "neither proposal is fiscally responsible. It is illogical to begin the journey back toward balanced budgets by enacting a tax cut that will only make the long-term outlook worse."

They continued: "The proposed tax cuts are not useful for short-term fiscal stimulus, since only a small portion would occur this year. Nor would they spur long-term economic growth. In fact, tax cuts financed by perpetual deficits will eventually slow the economy."

Baghdad has fallen, and Saddam Hussein and his thugs are either dead or in hiding. Bush's confidence in the U.S. military was well-placed. He listened to commanders who know more about waging war than the civilian hawks in the White House and the Pentagon. The question now is whether the president will heed the advice of wise men in both political parties who are trying to keep him from taking a weak economy and making it worse. Bush doesn't have a lot of time to demonstrate that he has a credible plan for reviving the economy. He's up for re-election next year, and you can bet the Democrats are going to change the subject from war to the economy.

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Correction: In last Sunday's column I erred in saying Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, joined other Vietnam veterans in tossing their combat medals over the White House fence in 1971 to protest the war. Kerry has explained that he opposed the tactic and kept his own medals -- three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. The medals he threw over the fence were those of another Vietnam veteran who was unable to participate in the protest.

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