Ground Hog Day in Washington
    by Gene Lyons

          Even as they scold politicians for heeding opinion polls,
nobody watches the numbers like Washington pundits. No horseplayer at
Oaklawn scrutinizes the Daily Racing Form closer than the Beltway crowd
studies the Hotline. Even resident scholars  here at Unsolicited
Opinions, Inc.'s peerless Division of Political Augury and Hairball
Divination sneak an occasional peek.

        Anyhow, here's how it works: When polls show majorities in
agreement with our own carefully-reasoned views, we praise the maturity
and wisdom of the American people. Conversely, when majorities of fools
fall for our adversaries' shameless demagoguery, we suspect they've grown
too self-absorbed and intellectually lazy to be trusted with democracy.

        That said, talking heads currently marvelling at the alleged love affair
between the people and George W. Bush, given his 82 percent approval
ratings, need reminding that wicked Bill Clinton flirted with equally
stratospheric figures. Exactly four years ago, just after his 1998 State of
the Union speech and soon after the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton hit
79 percent in a Wall Street Journal survey. His numbers were almost that
good after House Republicans voted to impeach him.

        Obviously, Clinton's numbers didn't reflect approval of his
actions, but anger at his enemies' ruthlessness. Similarly, Bush's lofty
polls derive mainly from patriotism and support for the campaign against
terrrorism rather than widespread belief that he's the second coming of
Abe Lincoln or FDR, and certainly not from unquestioning assent for GOP
save-the-millionaires economic and social nostrums.

        If nobody else gets it, White House political guru Karl Rove does,
one reason he told a recent Republican gathering in Austin that, bipartisanship
be damned, GOP congressional candidates should position themselves in next
fall's elections as tougher on terrorism than their rivals. Democrats who have
given Bush unquestioning support against al Qaeda will get the back of his hand.

        Understanding the ephemeral nature of Bush's popularity also helps
decode the near-comic incoherence of his State of the Union message.
Pundits have labored to figure out what he meant by designating the odd
trio of Iraq, Iran and North Korea "an axis of evil arming to threaten the
peace of the world." Was it an allusion to Germany, Italy and Japan,
the Axis powers of World War II? Oh no, said White House spokesman Ari
Fleischer. The phrase was "more rhetorical than historical."

        In geopolitical terms, it was also downright delusional. Iran and
Iraq not only aren't allies, they're mortal enemies, having recently fought
a brutal war that cost millions of casualties. With different languages,
different ethnic histories, different religions, and vastly different ruling
ideologies, about all they have in common are being on Israeli Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon's and now George W. Bush's enemies lists.
Neither has been shown to have played any role in the 9/11 attacks.

        A sane foreign policy-take a look at a world map or a "Risk"
game-would exploit their differences, show gratitude for Iran's help in
Afghanistan (where it fought  the Taliban and supported the Northern
Alliance), and encourage its emerging democratic institutions. Today's
Iran is a freer country than it was back when Bush's daddy claimed to be
"out of the loop" while Ollie North and the schemers in the White House
basement peddled missiles to the Ayahtollah. There were spontaneous
pro-American demonstrations in Teheran last September. Bush's cheap
metaphor kicked Iran's moderates in the teeth and confirmed its religious
extremists' view of America as an implacable foe.

        Then there's North Korea, where Bush's rhetoric compounded the
damage done last year when he insulted South Korean President Kim Dae
Jung to his face by dismissing the Nobel Peace Laureate's tireless work of
engagement and reconciliation with its communist neighbor. Then as now,
Bush pretended that a painstakingly negotiated nuclear weapons freeze
and moratorium on missile development never happened, thus needlessly
antagonizing a government of Stalinist crackpots he has no real
intention--and no plausible pretext--to attack.

        So what does it all mean? Think Groundhog Day, and three more years
of "war" against "terrorism," words so loosely defined as to mean almost
anything Bush's handlers can get away with calling them. A war against
evil need never end. This is not to diminish the administration's genuine
accomplishments, although who thought we'd ever see an American president
hailed as a mighty Caesar for helping liberate puny Afghanistan?  Bush once
famously vowed to take Osama bin Laden, "Dead or Alive." Now that he's
eluded capture, he's Osama the Obscure. Barring another horrific attack,
new enemies must be conjured to replace him.

        My other favorite part was Bush's grim determination. "Whatever
it costs to defend our country," he asserted "we will pay it."

        Pay anything, that is, except taxes. Come what may, Bush's wealthy
campaign contributors must have their reward. What's impressive is how
he says all this stuff with a straight face.

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