Bush needs new issues to restore drive

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 21, 2006

George W. Bush is a one-term president now serving deep into his second term. Like his father, he shot his bolt during his first four years. Unlike his dad, he was able to persuade America to keep him around for another term. But he seems destined to spend the remainder of his tenure,

la Nixon, “twisting slowly in the wind.”

Bush has truly become the Republican equivalent of President Jimmy Carter, out of control, dropping in popularity, unable to resume command. He barely skated through 2004 using the issue of terrorism. But his very success in preventing further attacks has eroded the strength of the issue and has undermined its political importance. Tax cuts, the cause celebre of his 2000 campaign, have long since been passed and yielded their economic growth. But they’re long gone as a key issue.

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Yet Bush, like his father, fails to invent issues to give his presidency a new lease on life. Is he too tired or lazy to do so?

Does he not believe in government doing very much in the first place? Or is he so preoccupied with Iraq – as Carter was with the hostage crisis – that he can’t divert his attention to new issues?

Even when he seeks to develop an issue, his approach is half-hearted and ineffective.

It seems that on any issue other than taxes and terrorism, he has attention-deficit disorder.

He squandered his re-election “political capital” on a Social Security reform he spent six months pushing and a year and a half running away from.

His energetic denunciation of America’s “oil addiction” animated his State of the Union speech but, by March, it was missing from his rhetoric. It never even got to the stage of a program before he abandoned it.

Now he flirts with the immigration issue – seeking a middle course that satisfies nobody.

And so, with no political immune system, he is subject to the infection du jour, be it the Dubai ports deal or the Iraq leaking scandal.

In the meantime, his party is wallowing in a massive public perception of congressional corruption.

What can Bush do? Anything he wants to. He’s still president. Here’s a menu:

Really focus on energy issues: Come out for massive investment in ethanol production, delivery and vehicles, and more: retrofitting all gas stations for ethanol and hydrogen; a new push for nuclear power; heavy investment in clean coal technology, burying the carbon dioxide. Truly lead the nation away from petroleum.

Admit that global warming is happening, and launch major new programs to curb it: Many are the same measures as can solve our energy dependence. But add in mandatory upgrading of power plants to cut emissions and major investment in solar and bio-mass energy.

Build a wall, but let guest workers in: Right-wingers want a wall on our southern border; they’d accept a guest-worker program if we could regulate our own borders. Latinos would accept a wall if there were a chance for immigrants to do legal work and a path to citizenship. Give both what they want, and lead the country into a grand compromise.

Put the drug fight front and center: Demand drug testing in schools with parental consent, and tax incentives for workplace drug testing. Link cocaine to terrorism, and build a national consensus for tough measures to cut demand.

Bush can restore his presidency’s drive with new issues. If he doesn’t, he’ll wind up leading his party to the greatest shipwreck since Watergate.

-Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years.