- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

President Bush has taken a page from the playbook of former President Bill Clinton, seizing issues traditionally owned by the opposing party and making them his own.

With the 2004 election less than 18 months away, Mr. Bush has embraced traditional Democratic issues such as Medicare and AIDS — as well as education earlier in his term — to defang the opposition, even at the expense of his own party’s conservative wing.

“Republicans have always been better than Democrats at playing divide-and-conquer politics,” said Democratic strategist Mary Ann Marsh. “And that’s exactly what this is.”

Said Republican pollster Bill McInturff: “He made education his issue in 2000, and now Medicare.”

The strategy helped Mr. Bush win the presidency in 2000, and key Bush campaign strategists appear ready to deploy it again. With the electorate split virtually 50-50, the strategy is to pull just enough votes from independents and centrist Democrats to turn the tide in 2004.

At the same time, Mr. Bush realizes that Republicans, who have been griping about the high cost of Medicare reform and the increased federal outlays for social programs, will fall in line at crunch time.

Mr. Bush is employing the “triangulation” method used by Mr. Clinton, who during much of his administration sought to distinguish himself from both the Republican-controlled Congress and the liberal-leaning congressional Democrats by seizing several key issues of the opposing party.

But Mr. Clinton, who triangulated Republicans on welfare reform, a balanced budget and anti-crime legislation, had a more difficult time than Mr. Bush seems to be having with his base in getting the more ideological elements of the Democratic Party to fall in line.

“Republicans have an easier task of it than the Democrats ever did because it’s easier to keep the Republicans on the right happy than it is to keep the Democrats on the left happy,” Miss Marsh said. “[Republicans] were out in the woods for so long that they are — as a party — more disciplined and more organized and more willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains.”

On the most recent issue, Medicare reform, conservative House Republicans have complained that the prescription drug program contained in the House and Senate bills passed by Congress is too expensive. Twenty to 25 lawmakers threatened to join Democrats in voting the measure down. But the president stuck to his guns and in the end, nearly all of the early Republican opponents voted for the measure. The legislation is now headed to conference, where the differences between the two bills will be ironed out.

Conservatives are also moaning about the president’s $222 billion increase in spending on such programs as education, job training, unemployment assistance, Medicare, Social Security, veterans benefits, food stamps and other “human resources.” That spending has increased from 11.5 percent of gross domestic product to 12.7 percent in the last two years.

But Republicans will be happy in 2004, when they return to their districts to run for re-election, said Mr. McInturff, the Republican pollster.

“If the economy is just a little bit better than it is now, and the president still enjoys an advantage on national security, and we pass a Medicare prescription drug plan, what exactly is the rationale for replacing him?” Mr. McInturff said.

Triangulation, an age-old political device in which a president (or a candidate) embraces a position that lies outside the rigid program of his party, was showcased during the presidency of Mr. Clinton, who used pollsters to test numerous issues. He often chose the path most supported by surveyed Americans, even at the cost of his party’s most loyal supporters.

The Bush White House denies the claim that this president triangulates issues simply for political purposes.

“I think when you look across the board at the positions the president takes, the president evaluates the issues that come before him based on the facts, based on the merits,” said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer this month. “He makes the determinations, and then others are free to say whether they agree or disagree with the president. I think his view to whether it’s an issue that’s important to one party or another party, or to many people in the middle — his view is to do what’s right and let people interpret it from there.”

Still, some key conservative voices caution that the president may be distancing himself too far from the conservative base that turned out in massive numbers in the 2000 election.

“Conservatives are starting to express more and more concern about the spikes in federal spending,” said conservative activist Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation. “The prescription drug benefit has caused a number of both Senate and House Republicans to openly express worry that we are rushing to institute a new entitlement program without really understanding what we are obligating ourselves to pay in perpetuity.

“It may help the president win re-election, but his second term may be made miserable when the bills start coming due for the plan,” Mr. Weyrich said.

Unlike 1999, when Mr. Bush, then the governor of Texas, used the early days of his presidential campaign to pull conservatives closer to his candidacy, this time around he is using the pre-primary period to embrace less Republican notions, ranging from his $15 billion plan to battle HIV/AIDs, his support for the assault-weapons ban extension and his stance on women in the military, an issue he punted to the Pentagon.

But Mr. Weyrich said Mr. Bush is looking only at short-term gains and jeopardizes the long-term health of the Republican Party.

“The president deserves to be re-elected for a host of positive things that he has done, but he should also keep in mind that the odds are very good that he will have a second term and what may appear to be good politics in the short-term will turn out to be neither good politics nor good policy looking beyond 2004,” Mr. Weyrich said.

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