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Bush turning back the clock with the Republican right by his side


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The polls suggest that most Americans like President Bush better than they like his policies. The same can be said of the Washington press corps, which seems to have succumbed to Bush's self-deprecating humor, recently on display at several major media galas. Bush's speechwriters have done a brilliant job of sending him into those arenas with disarming scripts. The Bush presidency, however, is no laughing matter. What he has done to the English language (he even turned that into a joke that won him boffo reviews from the press) is nothing compared to what he is trying to do to the country.

At the recent Gridiron dinner, an annual event in which Washington's newspaper reporters and columnists perform political skits before an audience that includes congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices and senior administration officials, Bush deadpanned that when he arrived in Washington he sought the advice of one of the city's Democratic wise men, Bob Strauss. The president said Strauss gave him this counsel: "You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on."

That line got the biggest laugh of the evening, but it was more than Bush's attempt at humor. It appears to be his governing philosophy. As a candidate, he fooled millions of voters -- and some journalists -- into thinking that he was a different kind of Republican, a "compassionate conservative" who intended to govern from the political center. We've known all along that Bush can be a charming fellow, and we now are seeing him for what he really is -- a Republican president who has assembled the most ideologically conservative administration in recent history, starting with Vice President Dick Cheney. A headline in the Economist, a London-based news magazine, put it best: "Forget Compassionate Conservatism -- It's Caveman Conservatism."

The magazine said, "Back in January, everyone assumed that Bush Two would be a remake of Bush One. Hadn't half the Cabinet served under Poppy? And isn't compassionate conservatism just a remake of kinder, gentler conservatism? No. As it turns out, the new Bush administration could end up more right-wing that Ronald Reagan's."

Bush has given the Republican right the keys to power in almost every part of government. Reagan talked the talk of the Republican hard right but, with some notable exceptions (James Watt comes to mind), he relied on political pragmatists such as James Baker, Michael Deaver and Howard Baker to run his White House. The Bush team does include some moderates, most notably Secretary of State Colin Powell and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, but so far they have been losing the battle for the president's mind to Cheney and the hard right.

The Washington Post recently reported that even conservative leaders have been surprised by the way Bush has filled key sub-Cabinet and White House staff positions with intellectuals and ideologues from right-wing think tanks, law firms, journals and religious groups. They are ideological conservatives who are preoccupied by moral, religious and cultural issues. They are anti-government and pro-business. They are fervent in their support of tax cuts and in their opposition to environmental regulations. They love school vouchers and hate abortion. They advocate a tough line toward Russia and China. They had rather spend billions of dollars on a missile-defense system than on America's children.

"This administration is shaping up to be the best," Paul Weyrich, a prominent conservative, told the Post. "When Reagan ran for office, even when Nixon ran, it was the campaign that was lovey-dovey. Then, when they got in, they didn't know who you were. Here, the Bush campaign didn't pay any attention to us, but as soon as they got in, they started taking notice. This is something I've never experienced before."

Neither has the country. While most of Washington has been focused on campaign reform, the Bush administration has been turning back the clock on issue after issue -- revoking workplace and arsenic regulations, restricting labor unions and abortion rights, abandoning his campaign pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions, to name some of his most controversial actions.

This administration seems to be in a hurry to accomplish as much of its agenda as it can in Bush's first term. Maybe that's because, with the economy going sour, Bush fears he could turn out to be a one-term president. The president has yet to make his first nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, but if he follows the pattern he has set in his first three months in office, we should brace ourselves for another Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, his two favorite justices. Maybe Bush will disappoint conservatives on this score. He has given them so much, they would be hard-pressed to squeal if Bush should nominate a moderate to the court. Of course, so far there is no reason to believe he will disappoint the Republican right on anything.

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