Gen. Bush Slays His Foes

IRAQ: President Bush speaks to reporters after arriving on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Sunday, April 13, 2003. Bush warns that Syria "needs to cooperate" by not harboring Iraqi leaders. AP

The man in the White House is the most underrated tactician since Ronald Reagan. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says that's just the way George W. Bush wants it.

CBSNews.com has obtained an advance excerpt from President Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in New York City, September 2004:

"As your president, I was proud to shepherd in the greatest expansion of government health benefits since the Great Society programs of the 1960s. By making sure that Medicare will pay for prescription drugs, we have ensured that America's seniors finally have the coverage they have been deprived of for so long. And to the millions of 'baby boomers' that will retire in the coming decades, I say you will never have to worry about paying for your medicines again. Democrats talked the talk; we Republicans have walked the walk."

General George W. Bush is about to cut the Democrats off at the pass on the one big issue they thought they "owned" – Medicare. Democrats and their president began trying to expand prescription drug benefits in 1997. They failed. Now Bush is about to take credit for success.

Some liken Republican Bush's prescription drug cure to Democrat Clinton's welfare reform breakthrough; both are "Nixon in China" gambits.

I think the Bush regime's strategy more closely resemble Tommy Franks' drive to Baghdad.

Decisively taking advantage of a routed and disorganized enemy, Bush is attacking their core territory with a fast, flexible infantry of policy and positions. Resistance is sporadic and the opponent's leadership is missing in action.

The Bush Army has clear and simple goals for this war and that, they say, is half the battle.

George Bush wants to be a two-term president. He does not want the geeks from that goofy Democratic co-ed fraternity to have any power on campus. He wanted to cut taxes a lot and he did; he thought it was good for the economy, good for rich people and good for controlling and strangling future government spending on most everything except armies, Medicare and Social Security. He wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein and he did.

The Bush Army also has tactical genius.

Most of his opponents will never admit that because General Bush is inarticulate and nonintellectual. That is Tactical Genius Trick #1. "I am the master of low expectations," Bush said on the way back from the Mideast summit.

Bush moves forward, quickly. He fights the next battle, not the last battle. He staged the Israeli-Palestinian summit just a few weeks after he invaded an Arab country.

Like Nixon, Bush is fully capable of scaring his foes into thinking he is capable of doing something really nuts so that they let him do something they think is only a little bit nuts. With deficits soaring and war costs piling up, Scary Bush said he wanted to cut taxes by at $700 billion more. The guy just won a war and he got big tax cuts just two years ago, so the Democrats figured that he could probably shoot the moon. Whammo. A $350 billion passes in no time.

General Bush knows the value of a good enemy, like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Domestically, Bush not only has the foils to his left, the Democratic Party of Nancy Pelosi and Tom Daschle, but also on his right, the Republican party of Tom Delay. He plays them like a violin.

Example: the tax cut that just passed denied an expanded child-care tax credit to many low-income families. Democrats were properly outraged and so were some Republicans. But Tom Delay wasn't. He thought it was outrageous to give people whose income is so small that they pay little or nothing in taxes a tax cut or especially a refundable credit. Delay provided Bush with an extreme right flank, and Bush marched through the center, supporting the expanded child-care credit.

Bush's finesse on Medicare illustrates all these strategic and tactical wiles.

As Washington's moist summer of 2003 started to simmer, the prescription drugs issue was nowhere near the front burner. That spot was reserved for the search for Saddam, Iraqi WMDs and the post-mortem on how US intelligence was used or abused.

Bad issues for Bush. Could lead to high gloss investigative hearings. Need a diversion. Use the 'move fast, move forward, don't fight the last battle' edict.

Thus, The Battle of Prescription Drugs. The President had not spent much time or political capital on it since the election, when it was a prominent issue. Bush spent far more ammo on a campaign to steer Medicare and Social Security toward privatization, a truly scary prospect for Democrats and most seniors. That, we see now, was diversionary fire, the Nixon scare 'em gambit.

When prescription drugs suddenly emerged on Congress' fast-track docket in June, Bush essentially abandoned the privatization shtick. Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy, saw an opportunity not just to dodge a sniper's bullet (privatization), but to actually accomplish something important. Not perfect, but important and a step in the right direction that can be tinkered with later. And if Democrats block the bill because they don't want Bush to get the credit, they really look like weasels.

Now, suddenly, Bush's Army is at the outskirts of the Democrat's Baghdad – Medicare, fount of political capital and party identity. Top White House political strategists have said clearly that Medicare's prescription drug coverage is the key issue for 2004. If Bush can get credit for breakthrough legislation here, he has taken away the enemies best issue.

Prescription drug coverage is of course vital to the Democrats most loyal constituency – old people. Splitting this stronghold is key for the Bush Army. But the issue is equally important for all us baby boomers with retirement-phobia since the stock market crash. It's a big credential for his "compassionate conservatism."

There's more. The Tom Delay battalion is furious at Bush for caving in on privatizing of Medicare and for adding a huge new entitlement benefit to Medicare. Bush dissed them. The General has taken advantage of dug-in shooters on the left and the right flanks to march straight through the high middle ground.

Bill Clinton could plot war games like this with even more aplomb. It just turned out he couldn't get bills passed and enemies vanquished.

George Bush, in Iraq and on the Potomac, is getting it done. The question to be answered: Has he done good?

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints and ideas to
Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer
  • Dick Meyer

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.