The day the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced that under the state constitution gay and lesbians had the right to marry a person of their own gender, I was speaking with a Republican operative who is no fan of the president.
"This is what's happening right now at the White House," he said. "As soon as Karl Rove pops open the champagne, he picks up the phone and calls Ralph Reed"—the former Christian Coalition whiz kid who now heads the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in the Southeast—"and says, 'Ralph, make it happen.' That's all he has to say. Ralph knows what that means. He and the campaign have already ID'ed the congressional districts where people will be enraged by the prospect of gay marriage. They have lists of the churches, of the pastors, of the people in the pew. They have contacts with the Christian radio stations, with the newsletters. Whether Bush says much about gay marriage or not, there will be a full-force effort on this front. It won't be visibly tied to the Bush campaign. The mainstream media might not be able to see it. But it will be there. And it might win the election for Bush. But, then, Bush might not even need this. Isn't he the luckiest man in the world? It makes you wonder what the hell God is doing."
It might have been odd to speak of Bush's divine good fortune the week polls showed his approval rate dropping to about 50 percent. (And a few days later, a CNN poll showed that 54 percent had doubts about Bush's trustworthiness.) But my conversation mate had a point. As social conservatives were being fired up for the 2004 race by the heathens of Massachusetts, Congressional action was bouncing in Bush's favor. The Republican leadership of the House and Senate was pulling together two pieces of mega-legislation: the energy bill and the Medicare bill. Both were complete sops to special interests—especially the pharmaceutical industry. But Bush was earning headlines that made it seem that Washington, under his command, was tackling complex and pressing matters of the day.
"Imagine him on the campaign trail," the GOP op said, "telling people he was the first president since LBJ to significantly expand Medicare and get it to cover prescription drugs. Who cares what else is in the bill? Even if the Democrats try to sell it as a payoff to special interests, the burden will be on them to explain why they wanted to prevent old folks from getting help—even if it's not enough—with their drug bills. What are they going to say? They opposed it because in a few years there will be an experiment involving private companies competing with Medicare? Yeah, that's going to sell. I tell you, it has to be something with God. This guy does not deserve this kind of luck."
My father used to tell me that it is always smarter to be lucky than it is lucky to be smart. But Bush's luck also has something to do with Democrats. The Medicare bill, which was passed with the backing of the influential AARP, was made possible by two Senate Democrats: Max Baucus of Montana, the senior Democrat on the Senate finance committee, and John Breaux of Louisiana, the senior Democrat on the special committee on aging. They were key negotiators—or enablers, providing the GOPers bipartisan cover for a bill that delivered more to drug companies than the elderly. (In a scathing column, The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt blasted Baucus: "A fraudulent Medicare bill... is a testament to the skills and resourcefulness of Republican congressional leaders and to the lack of skills—and backbone—of a top Democrat, Max Baucus.")
Even though many Democrats howled about the measure, their leader in the Senate, Tom Diastole, would not at first endorse a filibuster against it. Perhaps that was a reasonable political calculation. It's one thing to block votes on right-wing judicial appointments, it's another to stop consideration of a bill that does provide some relief for millions of elderly Americans. But by the time he agreed to join the fight against the bill, at least nine Senate Democrats had announced they would vote for the legislation. Subsequently, 11 jumped ship.
Here was a familiar scene: the Republicans united and disciplined, the Democrats debating among themselves. It happened with Bush's first, tilted-to-the-rich tax cuts package. That legislation passed with the support of a dozen Senate Democrats. (Baucus played an instrumental role in that debacle, too.) It happened with the war in Iraq. Twenty-nine Democrats in the Senate and 81 in the House voted to grant Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq whenever he deemed appropriate; the majority of House Democrats did not. With the Medicare bill, the White House persuaded (or muscled) enough of the conservative House Republicans, who gagged at the thought of expanding an entitlement, to win passage in an unprecedented legislative tussle that entailed keeping a 15-minute vote open for three hours. The Democrats in the Senate could not fashion a unified position.
The Democrats had a similar problem with the energy bill. Most opposed it, but not Daschle. "He's drunk the Kool-Aid," one Senate Democrat against the bill complained to me. "That is, the ethanol." Daschle's home state would make out under the measure's ethanol provisions. The drafters' pork-for-all strategy had succeeded in nabbing Daschle and other Democrats. The bill failed by a narrow margin of two votes. That was mainly because a sweetheart provision that protected the manufacturers of MTBE—a gasoline additive that has contaminated drinking water in at least 28 states—upset several Republican senators, including the two from New Hampshire, which has filed a MTBE-related lawsuit against 22 oil and chemical companies. The defeat of the bill, though, was hardly decisive. Republicans are saying they will revive the bill in January, and they may well be able to concoct a deal.
The war in Iraq—which at the moment appears to be growing uglier with each day—and the economy will dictate the terms of the 2004 election. And there's no telling what conditions will be like in Baghdad or Pittsburgh 11 months from now. But other stuff may well matter. And Bush is setting himself up well in the other-stuff category. Perhaps his crew is even becoming giddy, for they have begun talking about pushing Social Security "reform" as a campaign issue. When he pitched partial privatization of Social Security during the 2000 campaign, he could at least point to the projected surplus as a source for the trillion dollars or so that would be needed to cover such an initiative. Where's the money now? Perhaps Bush intends to keep flashing his credit card—which he has whipped out to pay for the Iraq war, the Medicare bill and his tax cuts.
Whatever else Bush has planned, he will have $200 million or so to sell it during his campaign. With that much money to spend, his campaign can be expected to carpetbomb the Democratic nominee and depict whoever the challenger is as worse than Saddam Hussein and in favor of civil unions.
The polls—pre-Medicare bill—were not looking too hot for Bush, but parts of the political landscape have been moving in his favor. It's not merely good fortune. As the saying goes, you-know-who helps those who help themselves. The question is, why do the Democrats have to help him as well?
David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
Copyright 2003 TomPaine.com