Kondracke: ‘Bush Hatred’ Will Hurt Democrats More Than Its Target

Posted January 7, 2004 at 3:00pm

“Liar.” “Radical right-winger.” “Extremist.” “Usurper.” “Menace to our liberty.” “Arrogant cowboy.” That’s just a sample of the epithets Democrats throw at President Bush. What’s the cause of Bush hatred?

I think it’s partly cultural, partly political, partly deserved, mostly misguided — and so extreme that it hurts Democrats far more than it does Bush. [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s the mirror image of the hatred Republicans bore toward Democratic President Bill Clinton, whom they impeached. I’m sure that if Democrats could find grounds to impeach Bush, they would.

Just as Clinton hatred caused Republicans to lose five House seats in the off-year election of 1998 — and led them to jettison Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — Bush hatred is liable to hurt Democrats this year. Polls show that the public just doesn’t share it.

To a limited extent, Bush does share responsibility for the toxic political atmosphere. In 2000, he promised to “change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.” He didn’t try very hard.

Bush does know how to work with Democrats. He proved it as governor of Texas, when he forged a close bond with the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock to get difficult education and legal reforms passed into law.

Except on one domestic issue — his “No Child Left Behind” education plan — and in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush has never even attempted to govern on a truly bipartisan basis.

My hunch is that he concluded from his father’s experience as president that there were no Bob Bullocks among Washington Democratic leaders.

Then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) obstructed the elder Bush at every possible turn, and after Congressional Democrats goaded him into breaking his “no new taxes” pledge to narrow the budget deficit, they didn’t congratulate him. They mocked him.

Democrats also began by mocking the current Bush, buying the notion put forward by Texas liberals like former Gov. Ann Richards and columnist Molly Ivins that he was nothing but an air-headed ex-frat boy who got where he was strictly on the basis of family connections.

Some Democrats still think that — the same ones who believe he has been steered into his foreign policy positions by a cabal of “neo-conservatives” led by Vice President Cheney.

These folks neglect to recognize the fact that it was Bush who appointed a team of smart and strong-willed foreign policy advisers who fight like dogs with each other but respect him and follow his orders.

Some Washington Democrats also may have expected that because Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and became president only by a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court, he should have — at a minimum — “reached out” to them, perhaps giving them a veto over his policies.

Surely, Bush could have listened to Democrats more. He also could have governed as the “compassionate conservative” he claimed to be in 2000 — and, in advance of the 2004 election, may be pretending to be again.

Instead, Bush has behaved as if he won the 2000 election by a landslide — pushing through huge tax cuts skewed to the rich, adopting a pro-industry environmental policy and appointing conservatives to the federal courts.

Bush has “reached out” only to enough Democrats to fashion a majority or break a Senate filibuster. Consensus-building across party lines ain’t his style.

But this doesn’t account for the blind hatred many Democrats feel toward Bush. A lot of it is visceral and cultural.

Openly religious and anti-abortion, the signer of a concealed-carry gun law in Texas and regular executioner of convicted killers, Bush is anathema to secular, pro-abortion, anti-gun, anti-death penalty liberals.

Beyond culture, there’s the Florida factor. Democrats have convinced themselves that the 2000 election was “stolen.” In fact, an expensive, independent newspaper recount of valid ballots in the state showed that Bush won by 493 votes.

Democrats also resent and fear Bush’s “pre-emptive” foreign policy, which conflicts with their post-Vietnam reluctance to use force and desire to nestle in the bosom of international consensus.

In the end, Bush’s presidency — and America’s place in the world — will rise or fall on the basis of whether he has used force wisely or rashly. The jury is still out, but at the moment Americans are on his side.

And that, I think, is what galls Democrats most. Bush has been politically successful. He got his tax cuts through a Democratic Senate. He won a historic victory in the 2002 mid-term elections. He’s leading his foremost (and angriest) Democratic rival, Howard Dean, by 20 points in the polls.

Instead of looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what is wrong with them, Democrats vent at Bush. It’s a disastrous strategy.