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Bush Pins Re-election on Big Government as Well as Tax Relief

Thursday, 19 June 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON – President Bush continues to sharpen his focus on social policies that could affect his 2004 re-election bid, as the U.S. Treasury prepares to ship refund checks to taxpayers and Congress continues its debate on Medicare.

Bush touted his economic stimulus plan this week before small-business owners at a New Jersey pasta factory. He told about an administration-backed provision that would make it easier for companies to buy equipment.

He then traveled to Northern Virginia Community College to discuss the employment-training component of his job growth bill.

The president is looking for these kinds of events to give him a boost in the polls and enhance his chances of re-election while co-opting Democrat allegations about Bush's handling of the economy.

"I went in front of the Congress this year, and I said, let's come together, let's set aside all the party politics and partisan bickering and remember why we're in Washington in the first place - we're there to do what's right for the American people," Bush told supporters at the stop in New Jersey.

"We must care about how to help somebody find work. That's what we ought to be focused on, not partisanship, but what's right for the American people."

Even with the U.S. economy stagnating, Bush has remained strong in the eyes of poll respondents. He has job approval ratings of better than 60 percent. Some political analysts believe that figure could erode if the economy worsens, if the war in Iraq does not yield the results the administration is hoping for - a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction - or if the war on terrorism does not stop attacks on U.S. interests.

Bush campaigned heavily for his $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2002 and promised that it would rejuvenate the economy. A year later, the unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, the highest level since 1994. So Bush has asked that the phased-in tax cuts be speeded up, with the idea that that would be the prod to spur the economy.

But if the economy remains stalled, or doesn't rise dramatically and unemployment stays at relatively high levels, those factors could cost Bush critical votes in 2004.

More than 16 months from the election, Bush is trying to frame the discussion in his terms, to at least plant the seed that he has plans in the works to take the country in a positive direction, which has led political analysts to predict that the campaign could be more about politics than policy.

"I expect this election will be more a struggle to frame the election than a debate about competing policies. Real economic conditions - jobs and income - will shape that struggle in the domestic arena," said Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow with Brookings Institution.

Mann said Democrats and Republicans would work to ride objective conditions or mitigate their effect with clever rhetoric and position. He said the burden on both fronts would be borne by Bush and the Republicans.

"It's their economy and their war on terrorism. The election is likely to be a referendum on that performance," Mann said.

James A. Thurber, director of Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, said Bush's re-election could depend on how he appeals to swing voters, specifically single women with children.

Bush, Thurber said, will be able to go to female retirees, many of whom are widows, and tell them he went along with prescription drug "reform." He said the president also would be able to say he supported the continuation of the ban on "assault" weapons, even though it as little chance of emerging from the U.S. House of Representatives.

On the other hand, political analysts agree Democrats will have to develop a clear strategy, theme and message to beat Bush. They not only will have to come up with issues, but solutions to problems, which they have done so far only in a limited fashion.

John Samples, director of Center for Representative Government at the libertarian Cato Institute, told United Press International that as signs indicate the economy is improving and consumer confidence is looking up, Democrats would have to come up with a reason for voters not to support Bush.

Vice President Dick Cheney has defended the Jobs and Growth Act by saying it will deliver substantial tax relief to 136 million taxpayers, lower the tax rate for stockholders on corporate dividends and capital gains, and accelerate this year's income tax reductions originally scheduled for later in the decade.

"We're beginning to see signs of increased investor confidence," Cheney said Monday at a luncheon for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

The Democrats' best hope for success in 2004 is for the economy to stay the way it is or worsen, Samples said.

On Medicare, the Bush White House has aggressively pushed for a prescription drug plan for beneficiaries at the same time revamping the 3-decades-old "entitlement" program. The sticking point has been lawmakers in Congress who are unable to agree how the plan should work, how much recipients should pay, and what part of the tab the federal government should pick up.

Bush's push to expand this already hugely expensive "entitlement" program risks alienating his conservative base and libertarians. The Wall Street Journal complained Wednesday that expanding Medicare would enhance the president's chances for re-election but betray his campaign promise to repair, not further burden, "entitlement" programs. (For more on this topic, see this weekend's

What Bill Clinton learned post-1994, Samples said, was the ability to run toward issues and take them away or at least neutralize them, which is what Republicans have done with Medicare.

"The White House has learned that with a vengeance," Samples said.

Samples said it was possible that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., about as far from Bush on the political spectrum as any Democrat, will vote for the Medicare bill being considered, an indication that it is no longer a polarizing issue.

Thurber said the GOP needed Medicare badly and compromised more on the bill than Democrats.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Senate Democrats agreed that elders needed prescription drug coverage but said the bill had deep flaws they wanted to fix. The first problem, she said, is that the plan would not be offered through traditional Medicare, but rather through private insurance companies that could set premiums and coverage.

Samples pointed out that Bush's endeavor to reclaim the White House could lie in a wild card: Iraq. He said it was unclear how long the American people would tolerate the deaths of U.S. soldiers, which have averaged about one a day since Bush declared an end to major military operations there.

Still, he said, polls showed strong support for the president during Vietnam, though 100 soldiers were killed a week.

Mann said the successes and failures in post-war Iraq and the Middle East would determine whether national security is an unconditional plus for the president.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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WASHINGTON – President Bush continues to sharpen his focus on social policies that could affect his 2004 re-election bid, as the U.S. Treasury prepares to ship refund checks to taxpayers and Congress continues its debate on Medicare. Bush touted his economic...
Thursday, 19 June 2003 12:00 AM
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