NYT | The War at Home
The War at Home
New York Times
Sunday 20 April 2003
While President Bush pursues the fight against terrorism and the military effort in Iraq, he's also staging a new battle on the home front for his domestic programs. Last week he began by stumping the country for his tax cut plan, a cornerstone of his presidential ambitions. Mr. Bush's successful prosecution of the war in Iraq does not mean that Americans must now fall in line behind his misguided domestic agenda. On almost every front, it is a disaster, a national train wreck that must be headed off for the country's well-being.
From the beginning, the key to Mr. Bush's domestic vision has been massive tax cuts, which Republican ideologues see both as a reward to the well-heeled, and a key to starving the government of money that might be spent on programs like health care or housing. Conservatives once viewed deficits as the height of bad fiscal policy. Now, they embrace them. There is no danger that a government swimming in red ink will come up with new programs to protect the environment, to extend health care for the poor or provide affordable housing to the homeless. No matter how much the president says he wants to improve education, the deficit is an all-purpose excuse to avoid helping public school districts overcome crippling cuts imposed by local governments that are teetering on insolvency.
The tax cuts are also meant to give Mr. Bush the appearance of fighting to improve the economy. But if the pain of millions of newly unemployed workers was the real point, Mr. Bush would have paid at least some attention to a recent report by the Republicans' hand-picked head of the Congressional Budget Office. Using the administration's own tax-cut-friendly method of analysis, he concluded that further tax reductions would have no notable impact on the economy. Yet, the president presses on for another $550 billion in cuts over 10 years.
The tax cuts are not the White House's only goal. The nation learned shortly after Mr. Bush's inauguration that he was not going to govern from the center, as many had assumed given the election results. Instead, he has permitted his far-right base to take over vast swaths of domestic policy making. What the public has not noticed is how far that effort has already succeeded. Using low-profile executive actions and administrative changes, Mr. Bush has quietly accomplished what he wants behind the scenes. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for instance, recently announced plans to allow public funds to be used to help build churches, as long as part of the building is used to provide social services. That was one of the administration's multiple attempts to blur the line between church and state. As the Senate amended the "faith-based initiative" to try to keep that separation clear, administration aides were assuring reporters that what went out in the legislature was being reinstated through executive order.
Drawing precisely the wrong lesson from history, the Bush administration has slashed away at core constitutional protections in the name of fighting terrorism. The Justice Department claims the power to hold American citizens in prison indefinitely without access to lawyers simply because they have been labeled "enemy combatants." Terrorism suspects have been held in secret detention, their hearings closed to the public. Meanwhile, members of Congress who try to question Attorney General John Ashcroft about such policies are either ignored or accused of aiding the enemy.
In the area of the environment Mr. Bush is still struggling to get his energy bill through Congress, with the famous provision opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. But the president has been much more efficient outside the Capitol, using executive fiat to ease protection of the national forests and public lands to accelerate commercial logging and oil and gas exploration. Meanwhile, his administration sat on the sidelines while industrial groups challenged some of the most useful environmental initiatives of the Clinton administration in court, including the prohibition of commercial activity in 60 million roadless acres of the national forests.
Turning the federal courts into places unfriendly to environmentalists, civil rights advocates, corporate whistle-blowers and anyone else who attempts to do battle against the interests of big business is another part of the president's domestic battle plan. There are plenty of qualified moderate judges who have a record of deciding cases on the merits. But Mr. Bush seems intent on promoting nominees with a background of knee-jerk right-wing ideology and cramming them down the country's throat. He has pushed nominees who reflexively rule against people seeking protection under antidiscrimination law, or workers attempting to sue their employers. Another nominee has compared abortion to the Holocaust. Democrats who oppose them are labeled as obstructionists.
The one key credential linking all the Bush nominees to the federal bench has been a strong record in opposition to abortion. While as a candidate Mr. Bush barely mentioned abortion, opposition to reproductive rights has been one of the strongest underlying themes of his presidency. Even the much-touted AIDS money for Africa is caught up in the far right's opposition to effective birth control and AIDS prevention strategies.
The president makes a good political general. One of his canniest strategies has been to raise the bar so high that even the smallest of compromises seems like moderation. ANWR has become the red herring of the environmental wars; any energy bill that protects the caribou from the oil drillers will be seen as a victory even if it contains ridiculous tax breaks for the coal, oil and gas industries and does nothing to deal with the problem of gas-guzzling automobiles. Somehow, a budget with $350 billion in tax cuts -- at a time of war and enormous government deficits -- has come to be seen as a great victory for the president's opponents. With defeats like this, Mr. Bush never needs to win.
Mr. Bush's willingness to take big gambles, to push for what he wants no matter the consequences, are likely to leave an imprint on America far beyond his tenure in office. We hope that he's successful in the fight against terrorism, and that he brings about a more stable Mideast and a democratic Iraq. But on the domestic front, almost every success cripples the nation's ability to move toward a happy, prosperous future. This is one war we hope he loses.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)
All republished content that appears on Truthout has been obtained by permission or license.