- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

During his first year as president, George W. Bush has brought honor and decency back to the White House by treating his office as public property to be tenderly guarded and respected, not as his personal spoil of political war. That he is not Bill Clinton would have been enough to carry Mr. Bush through most of his first year in office. The public needed a rest from Mr. Clinton's tabloid behavior and serial lying. But the war on terrorism has revealed a depth in this president that has surprised opponents and delighted supporters.

Like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush has been comfortable enough in his own skin to surround himself with intelligent and experienced people. When they look good, they make Mr. Bush look good. Also, like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush has focused on one theme at a time. The war on terrorism has energized the public and Mr. Bush is using their attention to lead on other issues.

Many in the media are surprised that Mr. Bush has done in office (or tried to do) what he pledged he would during the campaign. While some compromises have been necessary due to the makeup of Congress (and others, like school choice, were jettisoned before they had a chance to be properly debated), Mr. Bush has mostly moved his agenda forward. Now if he would only go after the easy targets of government waste, fraud and abuse.

Democrats have been trying to find something anything with which to whittle away at Mr. Bush's sustained popularity (83 percent in the latest USA Today/Gallup/CNN Poll). They realize that many who voted against Mr. Bush, especially the Democrats' core constituency of blacks, women and Hispanics, are taking another look and like what they see.

According to a Los Angeles Times Poll in November, Hispanic support for Mr. Bush had jumped to 89 percent, a 30-point gain from July. That figure not only reflects Hispanic support for Mr. Bush's handling of the war but his proposals to jump-start the economy.

A Gallup Poll found that within one month of the terrorist attack, President Bush's approval among African-Americans had soared to 70 percent, its highest ever. Various surveys have shown that women, for the first time in many years, support a war in the same percentages as men. Without a majority of these key constituencies, Democrats can't win elections.

An important component of Mr. Bush's performance as president is his strong religious faith, something he shares more with average voters than media types and academic elites, who often disdain such things. Those who don't share his faith, or its depth, seem to appreciate that Mr. Bush consistently tries to reflect in his life what is in his heart and spirit.

All this goodness will amount to little politically unless the president stops trying to win over Democrats and starts rolling over them.

In an "open letter" to Mr. Bush, Paul Weyrich, who heads the conservative Free Congress Foundation and has one of the better political minds in Washington, warns the president that today's Democrats are a different breed from those of a generation ago. It will do no good to praise them publicly, says Mr. Weyrich, when privately they're doing everything they can to "stab you in the back."

Unless Mr. Bush begins to draw sharp distinctions between the parties to attract the all-important swing voters, Mr. Weyrich warns, Democrats could win back the House and pad their one-vote Senate lead. If they do, he predicts, "they will use their subpoena power to make your life miserable. They will see that you accomplish nothing. Then they will turn around and accuse you of being a do-nothing president."

The first year of the Bush presidency has been a triumph. He must use the months leading up to the November election to convince voters he needs a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. Unless he gets it, the last two years of this term will find Mr. Bush working to fight off Democrats, not advancing his agenda, and there might not be a second term.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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