Bush's Wasted Opportunity
       by Gene Lyons

At this writing, it's hard to say anything worthwhile about how
the war on terrorism is going. As most Americans understand, bombing
defenseless Afghanistan is the easy part. All the hard choices and the
tough fighting lay ahead. Complex military and geopolitical puzzles will
need to be solved. Sad to say, one's confidence in President Bush's ability
to make the right calls has not been enhanced by recent cave-ins to the
dimwit right on the relatively mundane domestic issues of stimulating the
economy and airline safety.

        Even as Washington pundits exult over his newfound "legitimacy,"
Bush appears to be blowing the political opportunity of a generation. With
the nation united behind him and the "religious right" weakened by the
crackpot pronouncements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the president
had an excellent chance to move toward the center and away from the puerile
anti-government rhetoric and save-the-millionaires economics of House
Republicans like Dick Armey and Tom de Lay. Instead, the White House has
embraced them for reasons that virtually defy rational explanation.

  Last Oct. 12, the House Ways and Means Committee shoved through a
bogus economic "stimulus" bill in the form of $100 billion tax giveaway to
the same wealthy individuals and corporations who were already the prime
beneficiaries of Bush's earlier tax cut. Passed on a party line vote, the
House bill would do little to help the economy in the short run, and much
to destabilize the federal budget years hence.

        At Democratic insistence, $300 checks will be sent to workers whose
salaries were too low to get income tax rebates last summer. Because it's
sure to be spent at once on necessities, this cash should give the economy
a modest boost. But what have income tax cuts that award an added $39
billion to the richest one quarter of taxpayers between 2003 and 2005 got
to do with today's recession? Absolutely nothing. Ditto for repealing the
corporate minimum tax on profitable companies which would otherwise pay
none. Temporarily speeding up depreciation on business investment might
help in the short run; doing so permanently weakens the incentive and hurts
the treasury. And so forth.

        Even Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has called the bill "more than
we'd like" and mocked the House drafting session as "show business for
lobbyists." Its spirit was parodied by Washington Post columnist Mike
Kinsley, who urged Congress "to seriously consider special tax
considerations,  regulatory relief and possibly even direct financial
subsidies for people named "Mike" or "Michael." In this time of crisis, we
cannot allow superficial considerations of fairness to prevent us from
doing what is necessary to ensure that this essential group of Americans is
fully engaged in the war effort."

        The White House wants to trim the numbers some, but basically
supports the House bill. The Wall Street Journal reports rumors that if
O'Neill doesn't get on board, he'll be fired. Which can only mean that
President Bush, as many suspect, either can't do the arithmetic, or means
to use the campaign against terrorism as a pretext to return the country to
rising interest rates and permanent budget deficits. Apparently just so the
Scrooge McDucks of the GOP right can hoard heaps of currency to roll in.

        If Bush's economic policies are unwise, going along with de Lay and
the boys on the crucial issue of airline safety is downright irrational. As
a 1996 commission chaired by, yes, Al Gore, tried to convince GOP pols in
the first place, preventing terrorists from using domestic airliners as
weapons of war is a national security issue. Last week the U.S. Senate
voted 100-0  to put the Department of Justice in charge of airport security
and impose a $2.50 tax on airline tickets to pay for it.

        Amazingly, House anti-labor union fanatics led by de Lay and Armey
oppose the bill on the stated grounds that the private rent-a-cop firms who've
done such a fine job so far can continue to do so more efficiently. Meanwhile,
the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia has indicted officials of Argenbright, the
nation's largest airline security firm, for repeatedly violating FAA standards
- including falsifying records to hide employees' criminal records.

        What de Lay and company really fear is adding 28,000 unionized workers
to the federal payroll. Somebody needs to remind them that the New York City
cops and firemen who responded so heroically to the World Trade Center attacks
were members of the strongest municipal unions in the country-career professionals
whose pride, dedication, and, yes, brotherhood, have everything to do with the fact
that making the force isn't a minimum wage stopgap but the ambition of a lifetime.

        Astonishingly, President Bush has sided with the House know-nothings,
and threatened to enforce their wishes by executive order--bad politics, bad for the
country, but good in the long run, I suppose, for the Democratic party.

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