Bush brothers trade pranks as the president's poll numbers drop.

Published June 5, 2001 6:01PM (EDT)

Daily line

"There's a new spirit in Washington, D.C. There's a spirit of accomplishment. There's a spirit that says we can show the American people that it's possible to get positive things done."
-- President Bush, speaking in Florida Monday at a tax cut rally

Bush buzz

The public opinion numbers are not looking good for President Bush. The latest survey by the Washington Post and ABC News shows him with a 55 percent approval rating, an eight-point drop since the poll taken in mid-April. Only former Presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton had similarly weak numbers at the same point in their administrations. The survey, taken from May 31 to June 3, has a margin of error of three points.

The poll finds that the nation's doubts about Bush's ability to handle energy problems have increased considerably since the president debuted his energy blueprint last month. Fifty-eight percent of Americans now disapprove of the administration's energy policy, up 15 points in three weeks.

The president has also lost ground on other issues, with 42 percent of those surveyed saying that the Democratic Party should set the nation's agenda, compared with 40 percent who say Bush should do it. And 68 percent now want Bush to strive for compromise with congressional Democrats. On the brighter side for the president, Americans still like Bush, with 61 percent approving of him "as a person."

Personal approval marks notwithstanding, the poll numbers should hearten Democrats preparing to take over in the Senate on Wednesday. That will be Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' first official day as an independent, and Republicans will concede control to Democrats after Tuesday's session. But they won't let go without a fight. Senate Republicans are threatening to filibuster new committee assignments unless the Democrats guarantee them favorable treatment of Bush's judicial nominees.

The president, meanwhile, is renewing his charm offensive to soothe the administration's troubled relations with Senate Democrats and moderates within his own party. He has invited incoming Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to meet with him at the White House. Other senators invited to meet with Bush are Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.; Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.; Evan Bayh, D-Ind.; and Jeffords.

But Bush's big dinner is with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been the subject of strong party-switching rumors in recent days. Bush's challenger in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, McCain has been floated as a possible third-party candidate in 2004. So far, McCain insists that he's staying put in the GOP -- which should help him with his constituents at home. Many of the Republican voters in his conservative state have grown weary of McCain's vocal resistance to the policies of the Bush White House.

In Florida news, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has unpleasant words for Florida election officials, asserting that the monthlong presidential deadlock in that state exposed "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" in the voting system that tended to penalize black voters and keep them away from the polls. The commission singled out efforts to purge voter rolls -- first exposed by Salon -- as an example of how the state, in its zealousness, disenfranchised black voters.

And don't miss the Bush twins' great-uncle declaring the rule banning alcohol consumption by 18- to 20-year-olds "the worst law on the books." Jonathan Bush, brother of the first President Bush, likened the 21-year-old drinking age to Prohibition in a letter to a Connecticut radio executive. Bush further stated that because that drinking age is almost universally disregarded by young people ages 18 to 20, they are being taught that certain laws should just be ignored.

In other Bush family news, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got the chance to pay back his brother for a prank the president pulled at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in April. There, the president flashed a nude photo of Jeb as a toddler as he sarcastically denied an impulse to get revenge for the Florida recount debacle. On Monday, Jeb returned the favor at Bush's Florida tax rally by displaying a nude picture of W. as a toddler on a giant screen before the president spoke.

Tuesday schedule: The president helps to build a home for a needy family with the Tampa, Fla., chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

-- Alicia Montgomery

Rant: Code of confusion

Once upon a time, conservatives hellbent on tax cuts embraced the flat tax. The concept was repugnant to liberals who view the idea of taxing rich and poor at the same rate as regressive; but it had the virtue of simplicity -- it could wear the label of "tax reform" proudly.

Just try hanging that phrase on the new tax law forged by President Bush and his Republican Congress. With its labyrinthine adjustments to the already overly complex existing tax code, the new tax plan ought to be called the Full Employment for Accountants Act.

Sure, there's that little $300-$600 bonbon of a rebate check this summer -- that's something everyone can easily grasp. But once you get past this sop to the masses and dig into the longer-term provisions of the new tax code, you face an extraordinarily confusing and deceptive array of bracket changes that kick in on an irregular schedule, tax breaks that last for a few years and then mysteriously vanish, new retirement account options that require an MBA to decipher and an estate tax that gradually phases out over a decade before miraculously returning to life like the undead.

And then there's the alternative minimum tax: Our leaders have somehow managed to render the tax code's most baffling feature even more perplexing and opaque. They've ensured that millions of only modestly well-off Americans who've never heard of this shadow taxation scheme, originally aimed at the superrich, will be tripped up by it. (Don't even think of trying to calculate the AMT without professional help.)

Perhaps Bush and Congress found it convenient to pass such a tangled mess of a bill because it makes it so much harder for most voters to figure out that the tax changes ultimately skew to benefit the wealthiest fraction of taxpayers. Perhaps the law is actually a covert scheme to push Americans across the political spectrum toward support of a flat-tax plan by driving them batty each year at tax time.

But that's probably giving Bush and his congressional allies too much Machiavellian credit. More likely, the crazy-quilt nature of the new tax plan is simply the ugly picture of what happens when the executive and legislative branches compromise by following multiple paths of least resistance -- and then try to cook the resulting numbers by setting bogus expiration dates for their new provisions, leaving future legislators to clean up the mess.

Either way, one thing's for sure -- if the federal tax system was broken already, all Bush and Congress have done is thrown more spanners in the works. Tax-paying Americans on the left, right and center will be scratching their heads for the next decade trying to make sense of this year's tax insanity. It's enough to make even liberals reconsider the flat tax -- or at least yearn for a tax reform worthy of the name.

-- Scott Rosenberg

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

By Salon Staff

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George W. Bush