World

Bush Country

A new president is inaugurated— but his political honeymoon is likely to be short

Andrew Phillips January 29 2001
World

Bush Country

A new president is inaugurated— but his political honeymoon is likely to be short

Andrew Phillips January 29 2001

Bush Country

World

A new president is inaugurated— but his political honeymoon is likely to be short

Andrew Phillips

Much was familiar as George Walker Bush became the 43rd President of the United States, yet so much was different. The well-practised rituals surrounding the transfer of power in Washington were carefully observed—the oath of office dating back to George Washington's first inauguration in 1789, the ceremony on the steps of the imposing Capitol building, the parade up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. And, of course, inspirational words from the newly minted President himself. Bush, to whom eloquence has long been a stranger, rose to the occasion, promising to bring “civility, courage, compassion and character” to his office, and to “build a single nation of justice and opportunity.”

Those were the comforting words, but the contrast with earlier fresh beginnings was as easy to perceive. Inauguration day is traditionally a time for Americans to set aside—or at least pretend to set aside—their political divisions. Bush was granted no such moment. Not since the Vietnam War brought tens of thousands into the streets of Washington to protest Richard Nixons second inauguration in 1973 did a

new president face such open opposition on Day 1 of his term, and never in living memory were so many people questioning the very legitimacy of his election. Under cold, drizzly skies, thousands of protesters made it clear that the disputed outcome of the presidential contest will cast a long shadow over Bushs victory. The placards they carried spelled out their message: “King George—not elected.” “Judicial coup.” And, of course, “Hail to the thief.”

The man he replaced also loomed large over Bushs attempt at a new start. Outgoing presidents are supposed to step gracefully aside, stifling their usual disdain for their successor and joining in the moment of national reconciliation. Bill Clinton, however, was true to form—dominating the stage to the last. In a farewell address to the nation, he in effect cautioned Bush that a departure from his policies would endanger the prosperity of the 1990s. On inauguration eve, he struck a headline-grabbing deal that gave him immunity from prosecution in exchange for admitting that he gave false testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And even as the airplane that would fly him and his

wife, the newly installed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, to New York City was warming up on the runway, he rallied leaders of his outgoing administration and all but announced his intention to be a continuing force in American politics. “I left the White House,” he said, “but I’m still here.”

In the days before Bush’s inauguration, too, his opponents made it clear that they will try to use the muddled election outcome to curb his power. For that, their chosen target was John Ashcroft, Bush’s nominee as attorney general. For much of last week, Democrats and liberal activists accused Ashcroft of every sin imaginable in an attempt to block his nomination. He is, they charged, antiwoman, anti-environment and anti-gay. If not actually racist, at least racially insensitive. Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania, peered over the hearing room where Ashcroft’s fate was being debated and said: “I haven’t seen such intensity in more than a decade.”

Ashcroft was on the hot seat, but the real target was Bush himself. In fact, Ashcroft’s critics made it clear that their fierce opposition to him stemmed direcdy from the disputed election outcome. Many black voters, in particular, felt they were effectively disenfranchised by discrimination and faulty voting procedures—and Ashcroft became the lightning rod for their frustrations. Ashcroft, they charged, could not be trusted to enforce civil-rights laws vigorously because he opposed a school desegregation plan in his home state of Missouri, blocked the appointment of a black judge to a federal court, and accepted an honorary degree from South Carolina’s Bob Jones University when it still forbade interracial dating. “His actions are racist,” charged Maxine Waters, a black Democratic congresswoman from California.

Others pounced on Ashcroft’s evangelical religious beliefs and his long record of opposition to abortion and gun control as state attorney general, governor and senator from Missouri. In part, their opposition stemmed from the wide powers that a U.S. attorney-general exercises. In Canada, his responsibilities would be divided among at least three departments: justice, solicitor general and immigration. With such sensitive issues under his supervision, liberals argued that Ashcroft won’t be able to act impartially. “When you

have been such a zealous and impassioned advocate for so long,” New York Senator Charles Schumer asked him, “how do you just turn it off?”

Ashcroft himself fought back by promising to enforce all laws—even ones he disagrees with, such as a law requiring protection for women using federally funded abortion services. And, he said, he accepts the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving women a constitutional right to abortion as “settled law.” “I understand,” he said, “that being attorney general means enforcing laws as they are written, not enforcing my own personal preferences.” Those promises will most likely be enough to win him confirmation. All 50 Republican senators pledged to support him, and as many as 10 or 15 Democrats are expected to back him when the full Senate votes on his nomination.

They may not be able to block Ashcroft, but Bush’s opponents wanted to make it clear to the new President that his tenuous electoral mandate does not give him the right to wander from what they consider the middle ground of American politics. The public, polls show, may be on their side. A survey of voters for The Washington Post and ABC News last week found that only 41 per cent believe that Bush has a mandate to implement the policies he proposed during the campaign, while 52 per cent think he should compromise.

So far, though, Bush has said he intends to govern as if he won by a clear margin—instead of losing the overall popular vote to Al Gore and winning the electoral vote only after five weeks of legal wrangling in Florida. Asked by an interviewer what he says to those who argue he does not have a right to push his full agenda, Bush’s answer was blunt: “Too bad.” In his inaugural address, he made it clear he intends to press ahead with some of the most contentious parts of his program—in particular his promise to introduce an across-the-board tax cut amounting to $1.3 trillion (U.S.) over 10 years.

It all amounts to an uncertain start for a new President already facing questions about his experience—and even his intelligence. To make matters worse, the economy is slowing so quickly that he has gone out of his way to advertise his pessimism about its short-term prospects in a bid to blame the Clinton administration for a possible recession. And just as he takes office, images of power blackouts in California are competing for public attention. It is an unhappy coincidence—and Bush’s critics have made it clear that his political honeymoon is over before it ever started. E3