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Insights: Politics

With a disputed election and partisan policies, the self-proclaimed "healing" president has his work cut out for him
Tom Wicker
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

(continued from page 2)

No overall partisan agreement exists, however, on missile defense. The arguments against the proposal include the fact that deployment would abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, for years the centerpiece of international arms control policy. For that and other reasons, the Russians, the Chinese and major U. S. allies oppose American deployment. The necessary technology has yet to be, and may never be, developed and the cost is sure to be astronomical -- $60 billion over four years even for the land-based plan that Clinton explored and that Bush has called inadequate.

The necessity for such a defense, moreover, rests only on intelligence estimates that may or may not prove accurate. These estimates suggest that sometime in the near future, the United States may be vulnerable to missiles fired by "rogue nations" -- North Korea and Iraq are the usual suspects, though neither is known as yet to have developed weapons of the necessary sophistication.

To critics, this seems flimsy justification for a highly debatable program reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's hugely expensive, overhyped and unsuccessful "Star Wars." But Republicans and hawks generally, together with the Pentagon and some Democrats, have strongly supported development and deployment.

In his first appearance before the media, Bush's secretary of state, Colin Powell, forcefully stated that the new administration intended to "go forward" with its own version of missile defense, not necessarily land-based. Bush then emphasized this intention by naming Donald Rumsfeld to be secretary of defense. Rumsfeld -- who also headed the Defense Department in the Ford administration -- was chairman of the special intelligence board that first cited the supposed need for missile defense against rogue nations.

Bush has offered something of a Keynesian defense of his huge tax cut proposal -- that an across-the-board reduction in marginal rates might be necessary to offset a probable decline in the economy. That could put him at odds with those in Congress who prefer more limited forms of tax reduction -- elimination of the estate tax, for example, and of the so-called marriage penalty. Public and bipartisan support already exists for those and other targeted tax cuts.

Prior to his January 25 reversal regarding broad cuts (seen by some observers as a political move), Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan favored use of the budget surplus to reduce the national debt rather than for extensive tax cuts. He and his Reserve colleagues, as well as most economists, also prefer management of monetary policy -- interest rates and the money supply -- to combat possible recession. Counter-cyclical tax cuts cannot always be timed properly, usually can't be quickly approved in Congress, and therefore may take effect too late to stimulate the economy. And if interest-rate reduction by the Fed -- started with a half-percent cut in early January -- already has stimulated economic recovery, tax reduction might even prove inflationary.

On the question of military intervention abroad -- another issue likely to provoke controversy in Washington -- Powell and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, are known to take a cautious view, particularly of "humanitarian" intervention, and to consider an explicit "exit plan" a prerequisite before military intervention is authorized.

Neither is clearly on record, however, as to their attitude towards economic intervention abroad -- as when the Clinton administration "bailed out" Mexico from its peso crisis. Bush's nomination of Paul H. O'Neill to be secretary of the treasury also left unanswered this major question: What will the new administration do if and when a financial, rather than a military, intervention abroad may seem in order?

Predictable opposition, of course, does not necessarily mean that Bush cannot achieve much politically. Bill Clinton did, in spite of the supposed gridlock in Washington, his personal peccadilloes, and the extreme Republican animosity against him. The outgoing president achieved the nation's recent years of economic growth, its accumulation of a huge national budget surplus, and remarkable prosperity for many in the lower as well as the higher income brackets.

Depending heavily on Bush's personal performance as president, and his ultimate ability to work with Congress, it should be possible for him, too, to cope with -- if not always surmount -- his numerous problems; other presidents who lacked a popular mandate have done it. The institutional power of the presidency remains, though Bush's popularity may have been impaired by his tarnished election. His ability to use the "bully pulpit" -- so effective as a weapon for Clinton -- is still to be judged, and he's obviously not off to a particularly good start with a Congress virtually split between the parties.

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