Round Two

A year after they mixed it up in these pages over the president's job performance, loyal Bushie Mark McKinnon and die-hard Democrat Paul Begala step back into the ring to argue over tax cuts, the war on terror, and the prospect if Al Gore in '04.

Big Mac,

Well, here we are, nearly a year and a half into George W. Bush’s presidency—a good time to take stock. Because you and I cut our teeth on campaigns, let’s begin by judging W. by his own campaign promises.

In a time of peace, prosperity, and surplus, he promised change. Now we’ve got war and recession and deficits, so I guess he delivered. But like the man said, “Change is certain; progress is not.”

W. promised to “change the tone” in Washington, a not-too-thinly veiled reference to the savage politics of personal destruction his own party had practiced against Bill Clinton. But instead of ushering in a new era of good feelings, he personally ordered—according to the Bush-friendly Washington Times—a political hit on Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, trotting out Dick Cheney to essentially endorse ads that linked Daschle to Saddam Hussein. This at a time when Daschle had been targeted for assassination by terrorists with anthrax. Nice.

W. promised to cut taxes and cut them he did. He shifted hundreds of billions of dollars of projected surplus into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans while raising taxes on the middle class by slapping a 30 percent tariff on steel. For most working folks, the tiny Bush tax cut will be gobbled up by higher prices for cars, trucks, refrigerators, and everything else made of steel. Meanwhile, the Bush IRS has cut way back on audits of the rich and increased audits on the working poor. The bottom line is like that old country song: “They Got the Gold Mine. We Got the Shaft.”

Why on earth would W. want to reverse the single most successful economic policy in history? It seems to me that he’s obsessed with doing the opposite of Clinton on everything—and not just on taxes. Clinton insisted that corporate polluters continue to be taxed to help pay for the clean up of Superfund sites; Bush pushes for the elimination of the tax and generally retreats from the environmental agenda so radically that the man who enforces the environmental laws—someone first hired by his father—resigned in protest. Clinton engaged personally and courageously in the quest for peace and brought the Arabs and the Israelis closer than at any point in the past five thousand years; Bush walks away, disengaging from the Middle East as it erupts in flames, then belatedly flops around like a fish on a dock with a policy that even our friends say is incoherent.

Which brings me to what I hope to tease out of you in this exchange: Surely you don’t think Bush has been perfect, do you? Yet I’ve never heard the slightest admission from any of the Bushies about W.’s failings. Can it really be that everything Clinton did was wrong and nothing W. does is? There is a certain Stepford quality among the Bushies; y’all act like the stuff on his cowboy boots don’t stink. This is not good for the country or for the president. He needs criticism from those closest to him; instead, they brandish his approval rating, which we both know barely moved from his election until September 11. It’s more realistic to view it as Osama bin Laden’s disapproval rating than Bush’s approval rating.

If I expect you to be candid about your man’s faults and my man’s strengths, let me rise to my own challenge. I love Bill Clinton as much as you love W., but I publicly broke with him on the Mark Rich pardon and his lack of candor in the Monica Lewinsky affair. And I have applauded Bush’s policy in Afghanistan. Remember W.’s campaign claptrap about a hollow military, his stupid criticism of multilateralism, and his ignorant attacks on “nation building”? All that is out the window now. W. is praising our military, lining up allies, and sending envoys to help rebuild civil society in Afghanistan, and I could not be happier.

So there. I’ve criticized Clinton and praised W. It can’t be that hard for you to praise Clinton and point out W.’s failings. Hell, Mac, even a blind hog in a field eventually finds an acorn. And you’re in a damn orchard.

Yo, Pablo,

Man, you need a tractor to pull yourself out of the past. News flash, amigo: We ran against Al Gore, not Bill Clinton. Your goal in life may be to create and preserve a legacy for your former boss, but the rest of us have moved on to the future.

You’re not going to bait me into criticizing the president. That’s your job. But since you’re obsessed with Clinton and seemingly in desperate need of praise, I’ll be glad to offer some. Clinton had an enormous intellectual appetite and capacity. He did the Democratic party a great favor by moving it to the middle to embrace taboo notions like welfare reform. During his administration, the American economy prospered like never before. Clap, clap, clap. Give the man a gold watch. Now get him off the stage (and off the cover of Newsweek). It’s embarrassing.

If Al Gore had run half the campaign Bill Clinton ran, he might be president. But he didn’t, and he’s not. And speaking of Al Gore, I just heard music to my ears on NPR as I was grabbing my morning coffee. Al Gore is back, ranting at the Florida Democratic Convention. Gone is the hirsute Al Gore. Gone is the silk-shirt-unbuttoned-to-his-navel Al Gore. Gone is the John-Travolta-in- Grease Al Gore. Back is the good old Al Gore America came to know and reject. Back from oblivion to declare, “Never give up on what you believe in.”

Er, what is it exactly that Al Gore believes in? Besides himself, that is? And even then, which himself is it that he believes in? Isn’t that why America rejected him? Rejected him when he was running on the strongest economy in this century? (See, I’m giving your man Clinton credit again.) When the issues voters cared about—Social Security, health care, education—were associated with Democrats? He had every advantage a presidential


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