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Fortune Magazine

W.'s Grade So Far? Give Him a U!

by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

July 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Fortune Magazine Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Page 28

Watching George W. Bush these days can give you whiplash. Whether he's endorsing a form of energy-price controls after decrying them, stumping against global warming after downplaying it, or ending bombing on Vieques after permitting it, the President has backflipped more than Mary Lou Retton. Such about-faces are so common that the White House has devised a euphemism to describe them: mid-course corrections. But let's get real. They are reversals made in response to international pressure or voter opinion, making Bush, increasingly, the U-turn President.

His litany of turnarounds is growing. When Bush took office, he said he wouldn't intervene in other countries' business unless U.S. interests were directly at stake. But in early June he sent George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, to work out a cease- fire between the Israelis and Palestinians. He questioned the effectiveness of talks with North Korea about curtailing its missile production and then restarted them. But his biggest switch dealt with the dangers of climate change. He careened from completely abandoning the Kyoto Treaty, which is designed to combat global warming, to advocating new talks on the subject.

Bush's "corrections" seem to be aimed at mollifying voters. To appeal to Hispanics, he ordered an end to mock military raids on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico . To gain favor with voters in the industrial Midwest, he dropped his free-trade dogma and moved to impose tariffs on steel imports. And to appease Europeans, on his recent trip abroad he reendorsed an international campaign against tax havens that some large corporations had persuaded the Treasury Department to shun.

The White House denies that the President has made a habit of changing his mind. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, calls such policy alterations "refinements and expansions of existing policies in keeping with his philosophical direction."

Whatever you call them, Bush's U-turns are necessary now that the Democrats control the Senate. More leftward compromises will be essential if the President is going to accomplish anything. Conservatives angrily admit they will have to swallow more lawsuits against HMOs so that the President can sign a Patients' Bill of Rights. And defense hawks are ready to pounce on Bush if he continues to back down on his promise to beef up Pentagon spending.

For now, the right will tolerate Bush's switcheroos because the Republicans prefer having their own guy in the White House. "The right is as housebroken as the President's dog," says Marshall Wittmann, a GOP analyst at the Hudson Institute. Whether the public will also forgive what Wittmann dubs "Gumby conservatism" remains to be seen. But so far, so good. Bush's favorability rating, although lower than it has been, is still above 50%--high enough to ride all the way to reelection, which, after all, is the point. Right?

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