Jewish World Review June 23, 2003 / 23 Sivan, 5763
Presidents often fall victim to their own success: Some advice for the president
In this space, I have often lamented the lack of a domestic policy political strategy at the Bush White House and wondered out loud how he can keep control of the 2004 electoral dialogue once the war on terror fades from the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
It had always seemed to me that while Bush could count on approval ratings upwards of 70 percent as he battled the nation's enemies abroad, he had feet of clay, mired at about 50 percent, when it came to the rest of the political landscape.
Now, for the first time, Bush is advancing a coherent domestic political strategy that holds the promise of controlling the dialogue in the presidential campaign. His repositioning began with his "defeat" by the Democrats in having to accept a whittled-down tax cut of only $350 billion.
By passing a cut with a sunset provision that kicks in early in his putative second term, Bush has guaranteed that taxes will be front and center in the '04 campaign. But instead of pushing for tax cuts, a 30-40 percent issue at best, he will be opposing a tax increase, a position that brings him the support of more like 80 percent of the voters.
By describing Democratic plans to let his tax cuts lapse once their sunset dates arrive, he will successfully maneuver his opponents into supporting a tax increase, rather than just opposing a tax cut.
The recent White House flip-flop signaling a willingness to embrace the Democratic reliance on traditional fee-for-service Medicare to provide prescription drug benefits to the elderly is a second master stroke in composing a domestic political strategy.
Bush's refusal to go down the line with the right-wing think tanks in insisting on fundamental changes in Medicare as the price of prescription drugs makes it likely that the benefit will pass this year.
If the Republicans deliver a viable prescription drug benefit to America's elderly, as part of traditional Medicare, it will represent a coup for them as fundamental as was Bill Clinton's signing of the welfare reform bill prior to the 1996 election.
No longer will the Democrats have their pet issue to kick around. Medicare prescription drug benefits will be the law of the land, and it will have been accomplished under a Republican administration.
The conservatives have always wanted to use the need for drug coverage by America's elderly to induce them to accept basic changes in Medicare, either through a managed care approach or by changing Medicare into a tax credit system like the unused Medical Savings Accounts they insisted on inserting into the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act of 1996.
By agreeing to include a full prescription drug benefit in classical fee-for-service Medicare and not asking the elderly to jump through hoops to secure their medication, Bush abandons GOP orthodoxy with the same courage and independence Clinton showed in rejecting the automatic entitlement to welfare benefits.
Bush's embrace of generic drugs and his willingness to curb the appeals process which permits drug companies to delay their introduction onto the market place completes the trifecta of policy repositioning that shores the incumbent up for the 2004 election. By taking so major a step to cut drug prices in the United States and acting so independently of his drug company buddies, George W. Bush has gone a long way toward stripping the Democratic Party of its most treasured issues.
'Yes' is a far more potent word than 'no' in American politics. By adopting the positions which animate the political agenda for the other side, one can disarm them and leave them sputtering with nothing to say. When a president exercises his prerogative and passes the proposals of the other side, he takes their best issues out of play and reduces them to name-calling instead of effective rhetoric as the election approaches.
Bush is finding a place to stand in domestic politics in the nick of time. The most recent polls show American concern over terrorism shrinking rapidly, reflecting the success of Bush's efforts to make us safe.
Presidents often fall victim to their own success. They accomplish their goals and, in the process, do themselves out of a job. Winston Churchill's defeat after winning World War II serves as the classic example of this paradox of losing by winning. Now Bush seems to have absorbed the lesson and has created a domestic policy positioning that is very, very strong.
He has but one major hurdle still in his path: The possibility of a partisan food fight over a Supreme Court vacancy that could make the abortion issue central to the '04 election.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, among others, Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists in American Politics, Media & Business"
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© 2002, Dick Morris