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Published: Saturday, 6/15/2002

Bush plays a strong hand

Cowboys, in the scornful imaginings of East Coast liberals, are simple-minded guys who are too quick to reach for their six-guns. Real life cowboys were pretty good poker players. So is the Texas “cowboy” in the White House, as Democrats who were trying to take partisan political advantage of Sept. 11 have learned to their sorrow. President Bush saw them and raised them, and he's holding the aces.

Mr. Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security is the largest and most important government reorganization since Harry Truman pushed the National Security Act of 1947, which unified the military services in the Department of Defense and created the Central Intelligence Agency.

Though sweeping in scope, little in the plan is original. A consolidation of border security agencies had been proposed in two widely ignored commission reports in 1999 and 2000, and the Bush plan is similar to a bill introduced by Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.).

Bureaucratic reshuffling, in and of itself, does little to protect us from terror, and can be a distraction to those who are performing this critical task. What really matters is that sufficient people and resources be devoted to the task, and that managers be held accountable for their performance.

But organizations have consequences. Most of the people in the border security agencies are decent, patriotic, hard-working men and women who are as frustrated as you and I with bureaucratic incompetence and inertia. But they work in departments where security is an afterthought.

An immediate benefit of the reorganization will be to get the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration out from under Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, who - by making air travel more bothersome and expensive without making it more safe - is presiding over incipient disaster.

Putting the Transportation Security Administration into a larger agency with a broader perspective could put some boundaries on the empire-building of TSA Administrator John Magaw, who has been raping the Border Patrol and the Secret Service to build up a largely superfluous air marshal force.

The Bush plan is sound in concept and bold in scope. What is most impressive about it is that it was prepared without word of it leaking. It's nice to know our government can keep some secrets.

The Bush plan is even better politics. It guarantees Congress will do little else for the remainder of this session except work on homeland security, denying Democrats opportunity to raise issues about which they'd rather talk.

Democrats can either agree with Mr. Bush on homeland security, which won't help them politically, or oppose him, which likely will hurt.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle especially has to be squirming. If he pushes homeland security through the Senate this session, he'll be handing Mr. Bush a major triumph. If he doesn't, Democratic “obstruction” in a “do-nothing” Senate will be a major issue in the elections this November. He's getting what he deserves for his cheesy attempt to imply Mr. Bush was negligent on Sept. 11.

Democrats like Mr. Lieberman and Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), who have been pushing for a Department of Homeland Security, can feel with justification that Mr. Bush has “stolen” their issue. But that's the prerogative of presidents. Now Democrats know how Republicans felt when Bill Clinton embraced welfare reform.

Mr. Bush should lavish praise on Mr. Lieberman and Ms. Harman, and have them over to the White House to consult on details. It's the right thing to do, and it's good politics. I'm sure the Democrats will be happy to come. But I don't think they'll want to play cards with their host while they're there.



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