Can the Democrats Bust the Bolten Bubble?

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This week’s Time magazine has a curious article that brings us into the still-clueless world of the White House. It seems that new advisor Josh Bolten has a bold five-point “recovery plan” for victory that includes such pointers as “Brag More.” Yes, in the wake of a growing civil war in Iraq, the looming nuclear threat of Iran, chaos in the Medicare prescription drug plan and the criminal negligence of the Katrina response, what the President needs is some more of that good ol’ Texas swagger. Along with pandering to his nativist anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant base and cutting more taxes to please Wall Street, the President could, even with his plunging job approval ratings, make things right again for his party and his tattered “legacy,” Bolten believes. Call it the “Bolten bubble.” Here are four of the big ideas on pandering they’ve cooked up, as reported by Time:

“The White House has no visions of expanding the G.O.P.’s position in the midterms; the mission is just to hold on to control of Congress by playing to the base. Here is the Bolten plan:

“1 DEPLOY GUNS AND BADGES. This is an unabashed play to members of the conservative base who are worried about illegal immigration. Under the banner of homeland security, the White House plans to seek more funding for an extremely visible enforcement crackdown at the Mexican border, including a beefed-up force of agents patrolling on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). “It’ll be more guys with guns and badges,” said a proponent of the plan. “Think of the visuals. The President can go down and meet with the new recruits. He can go down to the border and meet with a bunch of guys and go ride around on an ATV.” Bush has long insisted he wants a guest-worker program paired with stricter border enforcement, but House Republicans have balked at temporary legalization for immigrants, so the President’s ambition of using the issue to make the party more welcoming to Hispanics may have to wait.

“2 MAKE WALL STREET HAPPY. In an effort to curry favor with dispirited Bush backers in the investment world, the Administration will focus on two tax measures already in the legislative pipeline–extensions of the rate cuts for stock dividends and capital gains. “We need all these financial TV shows to be talking about how great the economy is, and that only happens when their guests from Wall Street talk about it,” said a presidential adviser. “This is very popular with investors, and a lot of Republicans are investors.”

“3 BRAG MORE. White House officials who track coverage of Bush in media markets around the country said he garnered his best publicity in months from a tour to promote enrollment in Medicare’s new prescription-drug plan. So they are planning a more focused and consistent effort to talk about the program’s successes after months of press reports on start-up difficulties. Bolten’s plan also calls for more happy talk about the economy. With gas prices a heavy drain on Bush’s popularity, his aides want to trumpet the lofty stock market and stable inflation and interest rates. They also plan to highlight any glimmer of success in Iraq, especially the formation of a new government, in an effort to balance the negative impression voters get from continued signs of an incubating civil war.

“4 RECLAIM SECURITY CREDIBILITY. This is the riskiest, and potentially most consequential, element of the plan, keyed to the vow by Iran to continue its nuclear program despite the opposition of several major world powers. Presidential advisers believe that by putting pressure on Iran, Bush may be able to rehabilitate himself on national security, a core strength that has been compromised by a discouraging outlook in Iraq. “In the face of the Iranian menace, the Democrats will lose,” said a Republican frequently consulted by the White House. However, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll this April 8-11, found that 54% of respondents did not trust Bush to “make the right decision about whether we should go to war with Iran.'”

Is this wishful thinking – or insanity? Even so, these strategies are either doomed to fail or could have a disastrous impact on the Republican Party and global stability. “Reclaim Security Credibility” essentially means “bomb Iran,” as the neo-cons who brought us the Iraq war are so eagerly seeking. By a show of meaningless strength on the border, it could serve to alienate the increasingly important Hispanic-American community that is inflamed by the GOP’s tough policies on immigration and the many Americans who take a more nuanced view of immigration than GOP hard-liners. And by giving away more in tax breaks to the wealthy, it will only worsen America’s debt, weaken the economy and make it impossible for us to remain competitive in the global economy by investing in education and other vital needs.

As Bill Burton, the spokesperson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says about Bolten’s grand scheme: “He’s trying to put a positive spin on awful policies – rather than change the policies that are having no positive effect on Americans.”

The Democrats can fight back by showing, in part, that there’s nothing at all to brag about, and asking the fundamental question, “Had enough?” Along the way, it might be worth coming up with a unified positive message, too. Burton’s boss, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), did it in a concise way last October on Meet the Press. It’s too bad other leading Democrats aren’t doing so in a more visible way. Russert asked about him the Iraq war and what positive message Democrats had to offer. Here’s the exchange, with the best points on domestic policy:

MR. RUSSERT: So was it a mistake for Democrats in the Senate and House to vote to authorize the war?

REP. EMANUEL: Given the information that we were given them, they made their decision. What has been a mistake is to let this type of administration basically run a policy of incompetence when it comes to Iraq. Let me address, though, the future of this country. I’ll give you five quick ideas. One, we make college education as universal for the 21st century that a high school education was in the 20th… Second, we get a summit on the budget to deal with the $3 trillion of debt that’s been added up in five years and structural deficits of $400 billion a year. Third, an energy policy that says in 10 years, we cut our dependence on foreign oil in half and make this a hybrid economy. Four, we create an institute on science and technology that builds for America like, the National Institutes has done for health care, we maintain our edge. And five, we have a universal health-care system over the next 10 years where if you work, you have health care. That says fiscal discipline and investing in the American people by putting people first. The policies that the Republicans have offered have gotten us in the ditch we have today.

Bolten’s plan won’t get us of that ditch, but just digs us deeper. Still, the question remains: Will the Democrats know how to beat the White House political strategy?

Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly and has written for Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and many other publications.


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