- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

President Bush yesterday lashed out at his Democratic opponents for the first time in the 2004 campaign, charging his challengers with espousing “old bitterness and partisan anger” to mask their record of raising taxes and endangering Americans with a weak national defense.

After abstaining from politics for months as Democrats attacked him throughout their primary season, the president took aim at presidential front-runner John Kerry, branding the Massachusetts senator an equivocator who changes course for political expediency.

“The other party’s nomination battle is still playing out. The candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions. For tax cuts, and against them. For NAFTA, and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act, and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it.

“And that’s just one senator from Massachusetts,” Mr. Bush said, drawing raucous applause and whoops of appreciation from 1,500 supporters at the Republican Governors Association fund-raiser last night at the Washington Convention Center.

In his speech, Mr. Bush also assailed the whole Democratic as offering no vision for the nation, only rhetoric that seeks to divide Americans.

“So far, all we hear is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger. Anger is not an agenda for the future of America,” the president said, drawing applause.

The president said the November election will offer a choice between an agenda that empowers Americans, cuts taxes and protects national security and one that seeks to control Americans’ choice and their money and bases U.S. sovereignty on the whims of other nations.

“It’s a choice between keeping the tax relief that is moving this economy forward — or putting the burden of higher taxes back on the American people,” Mr. Bush told the gathering.

“It’s a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence — or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger.”

He said in the election, “the American people will decide between two visions of government: a government that encourages ownership and opportunity and responsibility — or a government that takes your money and makes your choices.”

Mr. Bush said voters will see the starkest difference among the candidates for the presidency in the realm of national security.

He defended his decision to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, who was deemed a threat by both Republicans and Democrats stretching back a dozen years.

“No friend or enemy today doubts the word of the United States,” he said.

Addressing critics — including Mr. Kerry, who voted in the Senate for military action in Iraq but now says he objects to Mr. Bush’s acting without international consensus — the president said, “Others would have chosen differently.”

“Our opponents say they approve of bold action in the world, but only if no other government disagrees,” he said. “They now agree that the world is better off with Saddam out of power. They just didn’t support removing Saddam from power.

“Maybe they were hoping he’d lose the next Iraqi election,” he said, as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause.

In the last Iraqi election before the U.S. invasion, Saddam won 99.9 percent of the vote.

The president also invoked the memory of his visit to the still-smoking wreckage at the World Trade Center in New York, where terrorist attacks had killed 3,000 people three days earlier.

“I stood in the ruins of the Twin Towers. I remember a lot that day. Workers in hard hats were shouting, ‘Whatever it takes.’ One fellow pointed at me and said, ‘Don’t let me down.’

“As we all did that day, these men and women searching through the rubble took it personally. I took it personally. … I will never relent in bringing justice to our enemies,” he said to applause.

Even before Mr. Bush’s speech last night, operatives for Mr. Kerry, who is expected to wrap up the Democratic presidential nomination on March 2, when 10 states hold primaries, fired a shot at the president.

“We now know that George Bush is on the run. Tonight, even before a Democratic nominee is chosen, George Bush is beginning his campaign for re-election,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. “At a fund-raiser with Republican governors, he will lay out what he calls his vision for America’s future. Too bad we’ve had to wait four years for that vision. One thing we know for sure, we know he can’t run on his record.”

The senator said, “As Bush looks to the future, he can’t escape his own past. Today, we are here to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency.”

The president has been under attack in recent weeks for everything from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to his service three decades ago in the Texas Air National Guard.

Senior administration officials said Mr. Bush’s decision not to engage the Democrats until yesterday was not because of flagging poll numbers.

Instead, they said the time for politics, which the president has eschewed as he repeatedly said he was focused on “the people’s business,” simply had arrived.

Mr. Bush last night brandished a bravado that has been lacking in recent weeks, worrying Republicans, who fear his federal spending increases, guest-worker proposal and hesitancy on homosexual “marriage” signaled a president abandoning his conservative base.

On domestic policy, the president said Democrats “seem to be against every idea that gives Americans more authority, and more choices, and more control over our own lives.”

“We’ll hear them make a lot of promises over the next eight months — and listen closely because there’s a theme: Every promise will increase the power of politicians and bureaucrats over your income, your retirement, your health care, and your life. It’s that same old Washington mind-set — they’ll give the orders, and you’ll pay the bills,” he said.

Invoking the legacy of President Reagan, Mr. Bush said Republicans have passed the largest tax cuts since the 1980s and warned that Democrats threaten to roll back his tax cuts.

“Our opponents have their own plan for these tax cuts. They plan to take them away,” he said. “We’ll have fiscal discipline in Washington, D.C., [and] to keep this economy growing, the tax cuts must be permanent.”

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Bush said he was prepared for the coming political battle.

“I fully understand it’s going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue,” he told governors of both parties gathered for a White House event.

But he pledged to continue to stay focused on running the country.

“This is going to be a year in which a lot of people are probably going to think, ‘Nothing can be done, right,’ because we’re all out campaigning. Well, that’s not my attitude,” the president said. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do in your home states, in terms of politics. But surely we can shuffle that aside sometimes and focus on our people, do what you were elected to do and what I was elected to do to make this country hopeful.”

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