15 JUNE 2002, Page 20


Bush is doing badly on the domestic front, says

Mark Steyn. He should realise that his is

a war presidency or it is nothing

New Hampshire THE political season is starting up. My neighbours clown the hill have put up two huge signs blocking out all sunlight for miles around — one, on one side of the road, for Bob Smith, New Hampshire's idiosyncratic senator and a self-defined 'country-music Republican': and another, on the other side of the road, for Craig Benson, a country-club Republican and a gazillionaire from downstate who's running for governor in the most expensive suit I've ever seen anyone wear in this part of the world. My friends are turkey farmers, so the impact of the billboards is somewhat undermined by the handwritten sign a hundred yards in front of it: 'GOT YOUR TURKEY?' 'BOB SMITH FOR US SENATE'.

I hasten to add that these neighbours are not the kind of farmers who'll be wallowing in the largesse of the $248.6 billion farm Bill recently signed by President Bush. This shameless pork (and wheat, and cotton) spending prompted paroxysms of rage from Boris Johnson, who declared in his Telegraph column that Bush 'has taken the engorged hosepipe of federal spending, and squirted it at any state that may return a Republican in this autumn's mid-term elections'. If it's any consolation to my foaming editor, as far as I can tell no actual farmers — that's to say, guys in denim overalls, plaid shirts and John Deere caps with straws in the stumps of their teeth — will benefit from the so-called farm Bill. Almost three-quarters of the subsidies will go to 20,000 multimillionaire play-farmers and blue-chip corporations with some canny land investments. Among the lucky 'farmers' piling up the dollar bills under the mattress are CNN founder Ted Turner, ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson, the oil company Chevron, and dirtpoor hardscrabble sharecropper David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank. Federal subsidies are aimed at the largest, most profitable farming operations, so, if you've got a small dairy or poultry operation in my corner of New Hampshire, you'll be getting precisely nothing.

The legislation, as Boris notes, is designed to help Republican fortunes in the 'farm belt'. Judging from this Bill, the farm belt runs from Park Avenue, down Wall Street, out to the Hamptons and then by yacht to Martha's Vineyard — or, as I like to think of it, Martha's Barnyard. These precincts will all be voting Democratic this November, as per usual: an extra 300 grand here and there doesn't make any difference to these boys. But the political calculation is that out in the real farm belt the strawsuckers will watch Sam Donaldson discussing the new farm Bill on ABC and draw the reasonable conclusion that Bush is 'helping' farmers. Perception is everything: just as federal education Bills do nothing for education, so it is not necessary for federal farm Bills to do anything for farms, just so long as they give the impression they do. By shovelling USDA dollars at Ted Turner and David Rockefeller, President Bush hopes that enough folks in, say, rural South Dakota will be sufficiently grateful to vote against the Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson on election day and return the Senate to Republican hands.

Mr Bush is supposed to be a master of priority-setting, and, politically speaking, he's got just the one this November — to take back the Senate judiciary chairmanship. Ever since Jim Jeffords, Vermont's dairy queen, flounced out of the Republican party and turned the Senate over to the Democrats, this key committee has been controlled by Patrick Leahy, a master of naked political obstruction. A year ago, Bush sent him the names of his first 11 judicial nominees for the US circuit courts of appeal. In the course of 12 months, Leahy's committee has managed to confirm just three, two of them Clinton Democrats Bush left on the list as a bipartisan gesture. In other words, Senator

Leahy has taken a year to confirm one out of nine Republican nominees. The other eight aren't even scheduled for a hearing.

Judicial nominees are important to conservatives. These days, the Left advances its causes more effectively through the courts than through elections, for the fairly obvious reason that very few people are dumb enough to vote for this stuff. So, if a conservative president can't get conservative judges on to the bench, his long-term influence is greatly diminished. Bush knows this. Hence, the farm Bill. Hence, his interest in that South Dakota Senate seat.

But this is a pretty roundabout way of doing things. Why didn't he jump on Leahy last fall when, post-9/11, he had 90 per cent approval ratings? Why didn't he do to Leahy what Clinton would have done to Gingrich? Bush could have said, look, there's a war on and we need my good friend Pat to concentrate all his formidable skills on his critical role — all the more important in wartime — of Congressional oversight of the Justice Department, blah blah blah. so he needs to stop playing politics and confirm these nominees. Back then, even Leahy's hometown paper, Vermont's Burlington Free Press, no friend of Republicans, was critical of his unyielding obstructionism. But Bush sits on his political capital like a squirrel facing an eightmonth winter. And so, at a time when he had the highest approval ratings of any president ever, he allowed himself to get kicked around by an obnoxious bruiser from a politically irrelevant state.

So here he is six months later jettisoning principles like a high-speed stripper. I object to the farm Bill, and the steel tariffs, and the softwood lumber duties, all of which impose costs on American consumers. And the more Republican sophists explain the logic behind them, the less sense they make. The steel tariffs, a wily GOP insider told me, aren't just about boosting Bush's chances in Pennsylvania and the like, but rather about getting union support for oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Er, okay, if you say so. But isn't this a complicated way of going about things? Instead of abandoning core principles, wouldn't it be easier to, say, give some speeches? If you can't sell the country on the need for additional domestic oil resources when you're at war with a bunch of Islarnofascists from the Middle East, when can you? Wouldn't it be more efficient to fly to Alaska and do a walkabout with all the locals who are itching for the drilling to start? And, while you're at it, give a speech out on the ugly barren wasteland the eco-loonies have declared inviolable while getting pecked to pieces by the world's biggest mosquito herd, whose needs apparently outrank those of the American people. Ever since 11 September, Bush defenders have said he feels that, with the country at war, he needs to take the high road. But sticking it to your opponents once in a while is the high road, compared with selling out

every basic conservative principle for the tenuous possibility of some barely related political advantage.

In my neck of the woods, the Republican party's foot-soldiers are markedly gloomy, given that they've got a president with 70 per cent approval ratings. Midterm elections are about which party's base is most motivated, and as the weeks tick by GOP activists report increasing disaffection — on campaign finance reform, on the ballooning federal budget, on Bush's refusal to use his presidential veto, on his alleged flip-flop on Kyoto. To be fair, Bush hasn't flip-flopped on Kyoto. But the woman he appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Christie Whitman, released a report pinning global warming on 'human activities' and sent it to the UN without first showing it to the President. With the press marvelling at the administration belatedly seeing the light and getting on-side with the EU and the rest of the eco-doom-mongers, it was left to the President to dismiss it as a 'report put out by the bureaucracy'. Yes, but it's his bureaucracy, his appointees. And, when they're actively undermining administration policy, he needs to rein them in.

Something similar seems to be happening on the war front, with every desk-job general dialling every hack in his Rolodex to explain why, whatever Bush and Rummy say, we can't possibly invade Iraq. Too risky. Can't be done. Never gonna happen.

Maybe they're right. But in that case Bush has put himself in the curious position of leading a war presidency with no war. And, after another four or five months, that's going to be a hard sell on election day. For six months, political analysts busied themselves trying to figure out how the war would play out in the Congressional elections. Now they're trying to figure out how the conspicuous lack of war will play out.

Democrats can sniff the fear — well, okay, the vulnerability — but can't quite figure out where the smell is coming from. They were crazy enough, when the mountain of intelligence failures started to pile up, to reckon they could get to the right of Bush on 11 September. 'What did the President know and when did he know it?' Senator Rodham Clinton demanded. What the President knew was that this shtick was a non-starter, and so did the Senator when the polls started coming in. If you dig the war, Bush, Rummy and Condi are always going to be a better bet than Hillary and co. even on their off-days.

A little before that, Ted Kennedy called for the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, claiming they'd caused the recession. Then the recession, such as it was, went away. Indeed, in a deplorable act of lese-majesty, the economy had the impertinence to recover without waiting for the Democratic Senate to pass an emergency 'economic stimulus package' that would have kept things nice and sluggish and recessionary until election day.

In an attempt to personalise the horrors of life under the Bush–Cheney–Big Oil axis, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt revealed that his 94-year-old mother. Loreen, was bouncing cheques. This is a more serious offence over here than in the UK: every week, my local paper carries sad tales of folks getting 30 days in the county jail for bouncing a $27 cheque to the feed store. Quite why Mizz Loreen is bouncing cheques I don't know, and the general lesson was hard to draw: we knew Democrats can't be trusted with your chequebook, but now it turns out they can't be trusted with theirs. The somnolent Gephardt's ill-advised foray into human interest dribbled away.

Enron? Ha! As I wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, in the week the 'scandal' broke, when 'questions were being raised': 'The only "question" really being "raised" is: "How can we pin this on Bush?" Short answer: you can't.' The New York Times headlined its story on the 'rapidly exploding' scandal 'A Familiar Capital Script', but, alas, Enrongate declined to stick to the script.

This has been the same strange pattern since 11 September. When the Dems try to hit Bush directly, it goes nowhere. But, when they do nothing, take the week off, hang out by the lake drinking beer, you can't help the vague feeling that things are somehow drifting their way, even though they're a party almost wholly lacking in likeable leaders: Gephardt, Daschle, Hillary; and Al Gore waiting in the wings to hector us into the ground all over again. If the entire party went to the Bahamas till November, they'd probably hold the Senate and retake the House.

Readers may recall my insane predictions during the 2000 presidential campaign. Recently, in the Speccie's North American sister papers, I dusted off my crystal ball and predicted that Bush would invade Iraq some time between the G8 summit in June and the first anniversary of 11 September, and that, if he hadn't got things underway by early fall, his political prospects would be less and less certain. Even a right-wing madman like me isn't saying you should invade countries just to improve your party's showing, but, if he hasn't been fine-tuning his Iraq-flattening plan these last few months, it's hard to know quite what it is he has been doing. This is a war presidency or it's nothing.

Of course, he could take his generals' advice, give up on Iraq, and hope to get lucky in November. There are very few competitive races, but, typically, Ralph Nader's Green party has decided to run a candidate against the most liberal Democrat. Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, and psephologists are predicting that the guy will siphon off enough votes to throw the seat and the Senate to the Republicans — just like Nader supposedly did with the presidency in 2000.

That's the choice: you can sit around hoping lightning will strike twice or you can take out Saddam. I know what I'd bet on.