Radical Reason

"Nil sine ratione."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

April 21, 2006

The last two weeks in Washington, DC, have been quiet, as Congress has been off on a two-week recess. Some may say that Congress is on permanent recess, but that’s debatable.

In any case, Congress has a full plate as they return to work – immigration reform, the budget, healthcare, tax cuts, gas prices, and a host of other issues. It’s difficult to assess whether any of this will be accomplished, however, as the elections this fall will prevent anyone in Congress from taking the initiative necessary for passing legislation. The Democrats have a vested interest in blocking any legislative effort made by the Republicans in order to brand the Republicans as incompetent in the fall elections. The Republicans, by contrast, are divided on many major issues, not the least of which is immigration, and compromise appears far away, particularly with the President at the nadir of his popularity and therefore unable to unite the party sufficiently.

Things indeed look bleak for any major policy breakthroughs. What can be done? Although Congress appears to have the most at stake with the upcoming elections, it is in fact President Bush who must take the most drastic action in order to salvage the legislative year and the last two years of his presidency. With the President’s political authority at an all-time low and status as a lame duck on the horizon, he must act quickly to prevent the complete unraveling of his presidency.

The President has already set things in motion for this second-term overhaul, sacking his chief-of-staff Andy Card in favor of Josh Bolten, his former budget director. The most recent casualty was Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary. His replacement, Fox News commentator Tony Snow, is a bold choice that will certainly improve the public face of the White House. Fresh blood must be one part of President Bush’s strategy, but until the Bush team fundamentally revises its communications strategy and renews its agenda, the deadlock on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will remain.

First, the Bush team must meaningfully engage the press. Republicans have tended to reflexively distrust the media, and in some cases with good reason. But the warfare that has often broken out between the press and the White House only disrupts the workings of the executive branch. Scott McClellan was known for saying precious little in each of his daily briefings, at the behest of a controlling White House. This is understandable, but the press is a valuable tool for advancing the President’s agenda and for pronouncing the good news about the economy. The President must exploit his control over the news cycle both for his own political life and the good of his party in the Capitol. It appears that this is on the horizon with Tony Snow, but only time will tell.

Second, the Bush team must renew its focus on policy. Many political mistakes have been made over the past few months – Dubai Ports World, the immigration debacle – but it is imperative that the Bush team continue to pursue its policy agenda. That means holding the line on immigration and resisting the temptation on the right wing of the party to pass a punitive immigration bill. The nativists in the party could destroy the GOP if they prevail. Not only does a majority of Americans support some sort of temporary worker program but the bulk of Republicans supports such a program. The punishment-only crowd may be loud, but they do not speak for the bulk of Americans or the bulk of Republicans. Border security must be addressed, but any border security bill that does not address the root causes of immigration and the millions of people already here illegally will be an insufficient and uninspired solution.

The added bonus of the Bush position on immigration is that it preserves Republican political gains made over the past few years. A hard-line immigration position will confine the Republicans to electoral oblivion among Hispanic voters for the foreseeable future – not unlike the purgatory in which they find themselves with the majority of black voters. Hispanic voters tend to identify themselves as more conservative than the average voter does, and this fast-growing block represents the best prospect for Republican electoral gains in the years to come.

President Bush must also begin to speak more candidly about Iraq. Republicans still enjoy a slight advantage in poll numbers on terrorism, but they are slipping in Iraq. The President’s leadership is critical to the success of the Iraq war, and he must continue to exert pressure on all parties involved in the conflict to move toward a unity government. Iraq is still the dominant political issue in America, and the fates of all those in power rest on a speedy end to this dangerous conflict. A huge victory has been reached with the resignation of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, and now a new government must take root.

Finally, the President must continue to argue in favor of open economics. Free trade has taken a partisan beating thanks to the daily unraveling of the American auto industry, but it is free trade that has made this country as prosperous as it is today. Protectionism only harms American consumers and lulls domestic industries into economic complacency and ruin. The President has worked hard to open ties to China and India, and he must resist the calls to engage in trade war with China over its currency. Not only would revaluation of the Chinese currency do nothing to rebalance the trade deficit with China, it would hurt consumers by raising the costs of all goods and would give China renewed purchasing power to take control of American assets – something that was tantamount to nuclear proliferation just a few months ago.

It is in fact the President who holds the linchpin to the 2006 Congressional elections. Lucky for the party in power that the opposition is so utterly clueless that they appear incapable of capitalizing on numerous Republican mistakes. But if the President does not reverse course quickly and take control of his party, November could be a tense month for the Republican majority.

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