- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

If there is one political skill President Bush has in spades, it is his ability to defuse Democratic issues that have the potential to hurt him or his party at the ballot box.

This talent may be the overriding story of the 2002 congressional elections. The day after the votes are cast, the headlines could read: "Bush robs Democrats of most issues."

The president and his advisers are practitioners of the old political axiom that you can't beat something with nothing. Thus, the White House has either come up with lighter alternatives to the Democrats' agenda, or in several key areas has embraced the Democrats' proposals and effectively removed them from the campaign debate.

This political balancing act is still a work in progress and fraught with peril. Shift too many times to the left of center and you begin to lose parts of your base. Fail to appeal to the political center, where the swing voters are, and the administration could end up losing a lot of close elections, control of Congress and its agenda.

The bloated, big government, anti-free market farm bill that Mr. Bush signed this week is a case in point. It will add $83 billion over 10 years to federal farm subsidies. It makes farmers more dependent on government handouts. It will weaken our case against foreign agricultural subsidies in future trade disputes.

No one in the White House likes this bill, but it was seen as the price they needed to pay to pick up at least one additional Senate seat in the farm states of South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Missouri and Georgia, all which have competitive elections this fall. A net gain of just one seat will give the GOP control of the Senate, and with it, the ability to control future budgets, approve a raft of conservative judicial nominees, and win other major pieces of Mr. Bush's agenda.

Last year's education bill removed that contested issue from the table, too. The bill will require the testing we need to demand accountability in our schools, but it pushes the federal government deeper into an area that is the primary responsibility of states and localities.

Democrats bought into Mr. Bush's bill because it promised much more money, but now he is trying to limit its appropriations, and the Democrats are crying foul. Still, Mr. Bush has his education program and is marketing it around the country to great political effect.

The campaign finance bill was another bad bill that Mr. Bush decided was not worth fighting.

Campaign funding did not show up on the top-50 list that voters worried about, but he reasoned it would be better to take this issue off the table and turn it over to the courts where it is in heavy litigation. It's a safe bet that in due course the bill will be stripped of its worst provisions.

However, Mr. Bush has been careful not to ignore his political base. The 10-year, $1.7 trillion tax cuts, increased funding for the anti-missile system, a beefed up defense budget to combat terrorism and the pro-life issues are the big ones.

But his conservative base has been getting other victories lately, reminding them of Mr. Bush's loyalty to their causes. This month, in a major victory for the gun-rights lobby, the administration argued in the Supreme Court for the first time that the Second Amendment protects the rights of all Americans to own guns, not just state militias.

In another reversal of long-held policy cheered by conservatives, the Department of Education announced it will begin to promote all-girls and all-boys schools where grades and test scores tend to be higher and discipline better. It is a pivotal change in the 30-year-old Title IX law outlawing discrimination based on sex that has the liberals up in arms.

Both actions sent a strong, reinforcing signal to Mr. Bush's base that makes it easier for him to be more flexible in other parts of his agenda.

Making legislative concessions can be a tricky business, especially when it means caving in to Democratic demands for more domestic spending.

The White House cut a deal with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, on the trade bill that would expand benefits for workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition. A bad tradeoff, some would say, but the administration sees it as a way to win big trade deals that will produce hundreds of billions of dollars in increased U.S. exports that will strengthen the economy.

All of this is a question of tradeoffs. This is an election year when both parties will spend more money than necessary to feather their political nests back home.

Is it worth it if it helps the GOP hold their majority in the House and reclaim the Senate? Yes, if that means enacting bigger policy reforms, like partially privatizing Social Security, which could mean trillions of dollars in much higher retirement benefits for workers, or reducing tax rates even further.

Still, it would be reassuring if Mr. Bush used his veto once or twice in the months to come, just to show Congress that he is not going to roll over on every bad bill that reaches his desk.

Donald Lambro is senior political correspondent for The Washington Times and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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