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Lame

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/6/2005

Earlier this year, once the humiliation of George W. Bush’s second inauguration had subsided, it was the young and earnest Democratic journalists who tried to rally their inconsolable colleagues. While the New York Times’ Frank Rich, self-appointed cultural czar of Blue America, was stewing about the upcoming apocalypse, warning that the United States was one step away from One Nation Under Rupert Murdoch, the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber cheerfully pronounced that Bush was already politically irrelevant.

Scheiber’s Feb. 3 online item, headlined “Why Is Lame Duckness Setting in So Soon?” speculated that the lack of an obvious Bush heir and a boisterous new media consumed with the 2008 presidential election would make it impossible for the White House to get anything done, at least on a domestic level. Bush’s fragile success in the Middle East—which almost no one predicted last November—has erased the notion that he’ll be a passive leader, but it’s precisely on domestic issues where Scheiber’s premature obituary now seems rather naive.

Democrats are crowing about the lack of enthusiasm and, in some quarters, downright hostility for Bush’s Social Security reform agenda, and they can claim an early advantage. The president, despite relentless campaigning for his proposed partial privatization of the entitlement program, has yet to articulate a simple explanation of his plan. The fact that senior citizens are the demographic group most adamantly opposed—even though Bush’s changes won’t affect anyone over 55—is an indictment of the White House’s communications team.

It’s likely that the Social Security debate will bog down as the year progresses—although the Democrats would be politically brain-dead if they didn’t throw a detailed counterproposal in Bush’s face—and no legislation will pass. The president’s team will say, in defeat, that at least they opened the conversation, or some other face-saving euphemism.

But as John Heilemann points out in the April 4 New York magazine, while Social Security is hogging all the media’s attention (excepting the Terri Schiavo saga, a mixed bag for both parties), “Republicans are teeing up pet legislation and knocking it down the fairway like Tiger Woods with a brisk wind at his back.” Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the opposition of which has been sacred in Democratic circles for 20 years, finally passed in Congress, and barely anyone noticed. Paul Wolfowitz will now head the World Bank. Likewise, limits to personal bankruptcy and class-action lawsuits were also toted up on the Bush victory board, and he’s not even three months into his second term. Imagine what a healthy duck might accomplish.

The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan is also playing Paul Revere these days, first with a March 18 column claiming that Republicans would be pulverized in the next two national elections if they didn’t “save” Schiavo, and then writing on March 31 that Hillary Clinton is not only assured the Democratic presidential nomination in three years but will also be the prohibitive favorite.

There are really only two issues that will have a profound effect on the 2006 and ’08 elections: the economy and national security. If the unemployment rate rises significantly by next year, and oil prices soar out of control, the GOP is sunk, no matter what people think about euthanasia or abortion. And if Democrats can’t produce national candidates who understand the war on terrorism isn’t confined to Iraq, they’re in trouble.

Noonan claims that Sen. Clinton is more politically shrewd than her husband—a real leap—and that younger voters “have no memory of her as the harridan of the East Wing and the nutty professor of HillaryCare,” which is true. However, even as Clinton works every day on appeals to the calm, moderate, “ordinary” American, the obstacles before her are formidable. It was easy enough last month for Clinton to avoid taking a stand on Terri Schiavo, but the token Republican opponent in her re-election campaign will pose that question and others next year.

A recent fundraising e-mail solicitation signed by Clinton, and obtained by The New York Sun last week, showed the less “moderate” side of the Democratic hopeful. Clinton wrote supporters that “our opponents . . . don’t want to talk about their plans to destroy Social Security”—disingenuous since Social Security is almost all Bush talks about—and the evergreen that the GOP intends to “roll back our civil and constitutional rights.”

Noonan is right to warn the GOP of complacency, but focusing on Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions at this point is a waste of energy.

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