Bush burned by the "third rail"? Plus: The president finds party unity elusive on tough immigration and healthcare calls.

Published July 24, 2001 8:07PM (EDT)

Wordplay: Timing is everything

Bush had been highly critical of anti-globalization protesters before setting off on his second European trip last week, but his quick-on-the-draw speaking style in handling a press conference question about the demonstrators led to an unfortunate slip. "People are allowed to protest," Bush said, "but for those who claim they're speaking on behalf of the poor, for those who claim that shutting down trade will benefit the poor, they're dead wrong."

Or maybe just plain dead. Days before Bush's remark at a Sunday press conference, the protesters suffered their first fatality when Italian police twice shot a masked man who they believed was threatening them, and later ran over his body.

-- Alicia Montgomery

Bush league: Campaign whiplash

As a White House hopeful, Bush was able to touch Social Security -- the "third rail" of American politics -- without suffering much damage from Democratic charges that his proposals would kill the entitlement altogether. There was mild public support for his calls to partially privatize the system and allow Americans to invest some of their Social Security money in the soaring stock market.

But that was then. With markets mired in bear country and the economy sputtering, the White House Social Security Commission's draft report recommending partial privatization for the federal retirement program got few public hurrahs and a frosty reception from Capitol Hill Democrats. Though their opposition to the plan is nothing new, the current economic climate seemed to make the Dems feel more secure in painting Bush's partial privatization plan for Social Security as a plot to strand less fortunate seniors in poverty. That was the tone of a Tuesday press conference led by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in response to a draft report from the White House Social Security Commission.

"What's going on here is not a mystery," Gephardt declared. "The Republican Party has always opposed Social Security and Medicare, and these latest scare tactics are part of a 66-year drive to gut Social Security and let people fend for themselves at age 65." Daschle was considerably more restrained, though he labeled the draft "biased, misleading and -- in many places -- flat-out wrong." He accused Bush's commission of using scare tactics, like using a rhetorical trick to suggest that the Social Security system would run out of money in 2016, a full 12 years sooner than the research offered to the commission indicated.

But Daschle gave Bush and the commission an out. "We hope the commission will rethink its approach before its report is finalized," he said. "If it does not, if it follows the tone and path set out in the staff draft, it will do the president and the nation a great disservice."

Perhaps that third rail is finally getting too hot for Bush.

-- A.M.

Daily line

"And always, to all, you have carried the gospel of life, which welcomes the stranger and protects the weak and the innocent. Every nation, including my own, benefits from hearing and heeding this message of conscience."
-- President Bush, responding to a statement by the pope that, among other things, condemned embryonic stem cell research

Bush buzz

The president continues to publicly agonize over his decision whether to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and every day he delays, the potential political consequences of the choice become more serious. The pope, who met with Bush on Monday in Italy, strongly condemned the research as coarsening society's will to protect innocent life, and urged the president not to OK the funding.

While Bush insists that the decision is merely a matter of conscience, the president's compulsion to placate the religious conservatives who make up his base would tend to push him toward denial of funding for fetal stem cell research. Yet approving such funding could reinforce any lingering public perceptions that Bush won't stand up to that constituency.

This is particularly true in light of the fact that so many self-described abortion opponents side with the prevailing scientific view that fetal stem cell research is vital to discovering cures to a host of serious maladies. With at least 13 Republican senators on record as supporting the research, and GOP division on the issue becoming more pronounced in the House, whatever decision Bush makes is bound to alienate a substantial bloc in his own party.

Republicans are experiencing an ideological split within their ranks not only on stem cell research but also on the White House's decision whether to allow 3 million illegal Mexican immigrants to gain legal status without penalty. A presidential panel has recommended such an amnesty, and Bush has indicated his support for the plan. Unfortunately for him, such a move isn't going over so well with many conservatives, who feel that Bush would be rewarding lawbreakers and compromising the integrity of American borders.

Bush has also failed to keep all his troops onboard on the patients' rights debate. Despite the president's and Republican leadership's clear opposition to it, a largely Democratic bill on the issue appears to have enough votes to prevail in the House, which could force the president to make an unpleasant veto choice.

None of this bodes well for Bush's uphill battle to partially privatize Social Security. The board the president impaneled to sort out the issue predictably returned a report consistent with Bush's view that the system is in dire need of a private-sector fix. But Democrats seem almost entirely unified in their opposition to Bush's reform plan, so he will have to count on Republicans to hang tough in support of what could be -- given current economic conditions -- a plan that also lacks a foundation of public support.

And don't miss the Bush administration courting the wrath of gun control advocates by zeroing out federal funding for gun buyback programs. Since former President Clinton started the program in 1999, local police have collected 20,000 guns.

Rather than continuing to complain about Bush's opposition to the Kyoto agreement, several of America's key allies abroad did something about it. They ignored the president's stand and went forward with a watered-down version of the agreement that excludes the United States.

Tuesday schedule: The president visits Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo.

-- A.M.

This day in Bush history

July 24, 1996: The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee signed off on a bill to make English the official language of the nation. In Texas, one of the states with a high number of Spanish speakers, Gov. George W. Bush voiced his opposition to the bill, though it was primarily backed by Republicans. The proposal never became law.

It's Grecian to me: Bush takes a beating in overseas press

Another tour across Europe for the American president, another round of merciless editorials and articles suggesting that he would have been better off staying at home. While thousands of anti-globalization protesters hurled charges at Bush and the other leaders attending the G-8 summit in Italy, foreign newspapers were just as unwelcoming, jeering the president for his stands on a variety of issues.

Perhaps the most popular point of media Bush-bashing is the president's stand against the Kyoto treaty to combat global warming, which did not go over well with several American allies or with the editorial board of Australia's Canberra Times. An editorial in that paper's Friday edition began: "The United States is on a mission of sabotage. It is not satisfied merely to walk away from the Kyoto protocol on the environment. Rather, it wants to see it destroyed." The president is depicted as trying to blackmail nations close to the U.S. -- like Canada, Japan and Australia -- into rejecting Kyoto to cover up America's own unwillingness to do its share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The paper does allow for the possibility, however, that Bush may yet contribute to the passage of Kyoto with his noisy opposition to the agreement. "One of the few good things to come from the U.S. chicanery is that the Kyoto agreement and climate change in general has now been put high on the global political agenda," the Canberra Times declares. "It would be a joyous irony if the Texas oil man was the catalyst for greenhouse gas action."

Another Friday editorial -- this one in the South China Morning Post -- addresses European Union nations and the Japanese government directly, demanding that they show their independence by defying Bush on Kyoto. "Instead of demonstrating the courage of their convictions, both the European Union and Japan have been hiding behind the fact that the United States is refusing to ratify the treaty," the editorial declares. "It is high time that the leaders of these countries faced up to their responsibility towards future generations."

Along with the much-publicized opposition to Bush over Kyoto, the president was scolded for his stands on issues that hovered below the attention of many in the American media during this latest European journey. For example, the Jerusalem Post felt obliged to take a swat at Bush Friday for his administration's affirmation of a G-8 resolution supporting Yasser Arafat's request to have international monitors supervise Israeli and Palestinian authorities in the West Bank.

The move was labeled the latest "slap in the face" to the Israeli government from the Bush White House, and a symptom of how American-Israeli relations have steadily worsened since Bill Clinton left office. Bush is blamed for allegedly allowing Palestinian propaganda to triumph over the facts on the ground, which the Jerusalem Post insists has imperiled whatever shaky peace could be achieved in the region in the near future. "Arafat now has more reason to continue attacking Israel than at any point since his offensive began," the Post opines. "Thanks to the Group of Eight, including the United States, Israel and the Palestinians are today another step closer to war."

As dire as the Post's estimation of Bush is, his most damning reviews come from the Japanese press. In a Sunday analysis, the Mainichi Daily News characterizes Bush's anti-Kyoto stands and the current administration's hesitance to support long-standing weapons treaties as "selfish American arrogance," warning that the U.S. is in danger of losing its international leadership authority. In conclusion, the Daily News observes: "The reason other countries showed respect to the world's lone superpower was not because of its military or economic might but because it showed strong leadership in mapping out directions for the rest of the world and possessed moral force. It is now in danger of losing both."

In a Sunday article titled "U.S. Hubris Makes a Comeback," Tokyo's Daily Yomiuri links Bush's stand on Kyoto and missile defense to the recent alleged rape of a Japanese woman by an American serviceman in Okinawa, calling the collective transgressions proof that the U.S. would rather bully its international opposition than negotiate in good faith on tough issues. The piece refers to Bush's positions on several international issues as "coercive" and "selfish," and eventually lumps America in with other "self-righteous states" like Iraq and North Korea.

Winning the award for most breathless criticism of Bush overseas is a headline in London's Independent on Sunday: "Is [Bush] the most dangerous man in the world?" The column doesn't explicitly conclude "yes," but comes very close.

The current American president gets compared (unfavorably) with former favorite European foil Ronald Reagan, and the Independent's columnist isn't afraid to hit Bush in a sensitive spot. "Unlike Reagan, Bush can't claim to be acting on a popular mandate," writes columnist Andrew Gumble. "In fact, there is still considerable argument over the legitimacy of his rise to power." Given the closeness of the November race, Gumble is all the more angered by the "blitheness and arrogance about this new White House," an attitude "that has touched a particularly raw nerve" in Europe.

It's enough to make Bush miss the "major league" types in the press back home.

-- A.M.

Burning Bush

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

Send scoops to bushed@salon.com.

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

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush