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Published: Wednesday, 4/27/2005

How did Bush choir go off pitch?

A VISIT to Washington always makes me think.

This time, a long talk with a shrewd observer of the place, coupled with four hours back on the turnpike at high speed, thoughts accompanied by on-and-off country music, produced some observations.

The first is that the Bush Administration has lost its pre-election pitch. It is acting like a choir when the sopranos have lost their place in the score. The other sections are trying hard to work around them and help them find their place, but the tune is wandering.

The first sign was the mishandling of the Terri Schiavo case. Republican political geniuses obviously saw it as an issue to hop on and score points with in the political wars. On that basis they got President Bush himself to get on a plane from Crawford to come to Washington to sign the bill Congress had passed. That move ended up with an 80 percent public disapproval rating.

That evidence of a tin ear was in comparison with, for example, the Republicans' deft pre-election handling of the Vietnam War issue in the campaign. That was so adroit on the part of the Karl Roves of the party that poor old John Kerry, a genuine war hero, ended up getting trampled on the Vietnam service issue by someone who in Vietnam War terms could be called at least an artful dodger.

Next problem, the Social Security issue, which President Bush at first put at the top of his list. (Now it's the energy bill that is his top priority.) That one came a cropper when people figured out that it constituted basically a way for his administration to give a nice doggie bone to investment managers, another part of his core group, at the expense of the aged poor.

The current problem for the administration is nominations. Paul Wolfowitz, a dubious nomination as head of the World Bank, was accepted by the Europeans, consistent with the long-standing deal that the Americans name the World Bank head and the Europeans name the International Monetary Fund head. Mr. Bush's nomination of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations now seems to have stuck permanently in the craw of even normally loyal Republican senators, based on his general unsavoriness. Washington insiders say Mr. Bolton is now roadkill.

The problem for Mr. Bush of getting all of his judges approved by the Senate is leading to an effort by the religious right to push senators to scrap the filibuster system. The filibuster is the traditional tool of legislative minorities in Congress to block what they consider to be extreme measures proposed by the majority party. It is hard to tell at this point, but it is difficult to imagine that effort will in the end have much resonance with the American people. They, as a whole, don't like "nuclear options" to be used or even threatened in their legislature.

Finally, there is the soaring gas price - $30 to fill the tank of a Toyota Camry, $70 for some SUVs - and inflation, the Halloween night terror of the salaried and hourly wage classes, as opposed to those who live on interest, dividends, and commissions. Prices go up, so do variable mortgage and other loan rates; wages and salaries don't.

So what happened? How did the Bush choir go off pitch? How come the force is no longer with them?

The easiest explanation is that the country, already accustomed to a never-ending presidential election process, has already deemed Mr. Bush a lame duck president and is no longer paying much attention to him, or to what he says. If that is true, it is probably bad for the country because he is still around as leader until 2008, almost no matter what.

The other possible explanation is much harder. The argument runs like this. It is clear with the collapse of the arguments of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, a link to al-Qaeda, more oil for the United States, and a new Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, that the real reason for the Iraq war was that President George W. Bush needed to be a war president to get the second term his father didn't get. Thus, the war.

The trouble was that, with more than 1,500 Americans and thousands of Iraqis now dead and the war nowhere near over, that has turned out to be a pact that Bush and his supporters made with the devil. Examples of that sort of bargain are found in Faust and in The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, made into the musical Damn Yankees.

The problem is manifesting itself in the fact that Bush's second term is not turning out to be a "New Jerusalem." It is becoming, instead, a nightmare of a hard-to-end war abroad and economic disaster at home, featuring high casualties and financial costs, no job creation and inflation.

To pursue the image, the devil is now presenting his bill and he wants your soul. This concept may seem fanciful, but if one is a firm, sincere believer in hell as well as in heaven, solid born-again beliefs, and the policies one has pursued have had as even an unintentional result the death of 1,500 of one's own people and thousands more, reflection on what one has done and prayer could cause one to lose one's place on the page.

Time with thoughtful people in Washington, hours on the turnpike, and the words of country music songs can produce singular conclusions. What is clear in any case is that the Bush administration is now showing serious signs of being politically tone deaf, for whatever reason. This will require more careful listening.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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