Riding a road to nowhere?

As Democrats dicker over a new direction, Bush pushes his policies down easy street.

By Salon Staff

Published February 2, 2001 12:25PM (EST)

After scoring a tough win on John Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, President Bush will drop in on the Democratic Party's congressional retreat this weekend. It's unusual for a president to attend the opposition's retreat, but the move is consistent with Bush's perpetual efforts to reach out to political foes.

While the Republican president tries to broaden his party's tent, critics are wondering aloud whether Democrats are folding their party's tent altogether. For example, the relatively large number of Democratic "no" votes on the Ashcroft nomination could be read as a moral victory for the left and a warning to Bush that the next ultraconservative nominee will get Borked out of town. It could also be regarded as a forgettable partisan stunt, and proof that Bush can get his nominees through regardless of ideology.

Congressional Democrats have been aggressively giving in on the same Bush tax cut package that they had damned as a budget-busting giveaway to the rich during the presidential campaign. Despite this change of heart, or lack of nerve, questions persist about whether the American economy needs a tax cut and whether the American people want one.

The installation of Bill Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe as chief of the Democratic National Committee is a further indication that the party has not yet abandoned its backward-looking strategy. Though former Vice President Gore's campaign was bedeviled by multiple fundraising scandals, Democrats nonetheless supported McAuliffe for the leadership post. McAuliffe has been thanked and blamed for the cash-first approach to party building that defined the Clinton years.

Republicans are showing a bit of nostalgia for Clinton, with the Senate Judiciary Committee now threatening to haul in the former president for questioning over his 11th hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Though Clinton has repeatedly declared that the pardon was based on the merits of Rich's case, Republicans wonder if the hundreds of thousands of dollars Denise Rich, his ex-wife, donated to Democratic causes influenced the decision. Other members of the GOP question whether Clinton's $700,000-per-month office space in Manhattan -- paid for by taxpayers -- might be just too expensive.
-- Alicia Montgomery [6 a.m. PST, Feb. 2, 2001]

The last word of the John Ashcroft drama is likely to be written Thursday, when both his friends and his foes believe the former Missouri senator will be confirmed as the next attorney general. All 50 Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats have pledged to support his nomination.

Democrats who oppose Ashcroft have shown little inclination to slow the process with a filibuster, though party leaders are striving for 41 "no" votes to prove that they could have sustained a filibuster if they wanted to. It's thought that such a showing will prove to President Bush that conservative judicial nominees won't get a free confirmation ride from Democrats. And even the Democrats who plan to vote for Ashcroft insist he still has to demonstrate to the American public his willingness to enforce laws he disagrees with.

Many conservatives don't appreciate the Democrats' tactics during the Ashcroft battle and hope they're not a preview of future partisan action. Some Republicans suggest that the Democrats don't appreciate the size of the conservative constituency in America that supports Ashcroft and his ideals.

In the meantime, the president held a fence-mending session Wednesday evening with leaders of a constituency that is decidedly out of the pro-Ashcroft camp. Bush met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, many of whom have been among Ashcroft's most vocal opponents.

In what's beginning to be a cliché of Bush's "uniter, not divider" meetings, both sides described the gathering as friendly. But there's no evidence that anyone's mind was changed on any issue. Caucus members voiced their concerns about Ashcroft's record on race and about the lingering anger in the black community surrounding irregularities in the voting process in Florida. Bush smiled and said that he hoped that the meeting would beget other meetings and lead to a more open relationship in the future.

Similar tones of noncommital cordiality followed Bush's meeting last week with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during which the president and his former rival tried to hammer out a compromise on the timetable for campaign finance reform.

With his Cabinet battles behind him, the president is now likely to focus his attention on two of his top policy priorities: taxes and education reform. Conservatives are increasingly confident that the still-growing surplus will guarantee a substantial tax cut, even if it's not the full $1.3 trillion cut Bush has proposed. The blessing of Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and the cooperation of moderate Democrats are also heartening to them.

Bush's education plan, however, isn't getting rave reviews from small-government enthusiasts. His push for accountability involves more oversight from Washington than some conservatives would like. The president has acknowledged that members of his own party could obstruct the progress of his education reforms in Congress.
-- Alicia Montgomery [5:45 a.m. PST, Feb. 1, 2001]

Salon Staff

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