Bush: Why fight?

Published August 27, 2001 9:06PM (EDT)

Daily line "I'm upbeat and my spirits are high. But I must confess I'm worried about the fact that our manufacturing sector in our economy is a lot slower than I would hope. As a matter of fact, our economy has grown at a paltry 1 percent for the last 12 months, and that worries me. It worries me, first and foremost, for the effect that's going to have on the families all across America."
--President Bush, speaking with Pennsylvania steelworkers about the economy

Bush buzz

Bush spent the weekend walking a tricky rhetorical line in discussions about the economy and the upcoming budget battle in Congress. In remarks from his vacation home in Texas and on the road in Pennsylvania, the president continued to portray his $1.35 trillion tax cut as responsible economic relief for overtaxed Americans, while downplaying the diminished surplus. Just last week, figures from the White House Office of Management and Budget showed that only $2 billion remains of this year's budget surplus, outside of money set aside for the Social Security trust fund.

But the president has to spin that into the most positive picture possible, and so on Saturday backed down from the combative stance he took in a Friday press conference, when he smilingly described the lower surplus figures as a "fiscal straightjacket" for big spenders in Congress. Instead, in a chat with reporters during a tour of his Texas property, Bush held out the hope that Congress would stick to his funding suggestions and there would be no need to fight over his planned increase in military spending and funds for his education reform program. "'Fight' isn't the right word yet," Bush said.

The Democrats don't seem to buy that. This weekend, they did not back down at all from their summer slams attacking Bush as a spendthrift who wrecked record surpluses after just seven months in office. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe said Sunday that Bush had "blown" the surplus on his tax cut, while Democratic senator and potential 2004 presidential candidate John Edwards of North Carolina accused the administration of trying to cover up fiscal errors with "Washington gimmicks and doublespeak."

Meanwhile, Bush seems to be searching for a gimmick that will get him out of holding to a promise not to touch the Social Security surplus for unrelated spending. Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's chief economic advisor, told "Fox News Sunday" that, in the event of a recession, he might encourage the president to dip into the $156 billion that Bush and congressional leaders had agreed to leave undisturbed for the federal retirement program.

Lindsey's statements are likely meant as a political trial balloon to see whether Americans will hold it against Bush or the party if he backs off his commitment to leave that money undisturbed. But these attempts to search for the right message about the surplus and the status of the economy could prove counterproductive. If Bush's tax cut fails to deliver the economic stimulus that he promised, such statements could fuel public perception that the president's economic team had understood consequences of the tax cut, but failed to do anything to avoid them.

And don't miss the Bush administration boycotting the United Nations conference on racism in South Africa. Secretary of State Colin Powell will skip the conference due to what the U.S. considers anti-Israeli language that equates Zionism with racism. Officials at the conference had already taken discussions about slave reparations off the agenda to appease the Bush White House.

On a lighter note, Vice President Cheney was able to escape gun rights protesters during a Saturday appearance at the Utah Republican Convention. After a week of wrangling, the Secret Service found a way to accommodate attendees who held permits to carry concealed weapons. Lockers were provided for temporary storage of guns outside the convention hall, and Cheney spoke without incident.

Monday schedule: There's nothing but rest and relaxation on the schedule for the president's 24th vacation day in Crawford, Texas.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

Aug. 27, 1980: The Chinese government responds angrily to comments from GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan about his stance toward Taiwan, and accuses Reagan's running mate, George Bush, of trying to cover up for his boss. Bush had said that alarm over Reagan's pro-Taiwan comments resulted from confusion over "semantics," and that Reagan had no intention of reversing America's "one-China" policy. "Bush is deliberately mystifying and distorting the fact" that Reagan wanted to officially recognize Taiwan, according to a Chinese government-controlled newspaper. "To lightly describe such an important and essential question as attempted retrogression in Sino-U.S. relations as mere 'semantics' shows Reagan and Bush are playing the fool themselves."

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

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By Salon Staff

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George W. Bush