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Nixon rates Bush's presidential performance

By William Safire Op-ed Columnist, New York Times

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Reached by cellphone in purgatory, where he is still being cleansed of his sin of imposing wage and price controls, Richard Nixon agreed to give his former speechwriter an analysis of the political strategy of the present occupant of the Oval Office.

Q: With unemployment rising and the federal deficit ballooning — and all the Democratic candidates accusing him of having gone to war under false pretenses — how come Bush's approval rating hasn't nose-dived?

RN: Because he keeps his eye on the ball in center court. He's a war president fighting a popular war and doesn't let anybody forget he's winning. Afghanistan and Iraq are the first two battles in that war on terror. The more the elites here and in Europe holler, the solider the Bush support gets.

Q: But he's obviously moving to the political center, with his prescription drug entitlement and his education spending and the billions for AIDS in Africa — and he even liked the court's split decision on affirmative action. What's going to happen to his core support?

RN: Your conservative base will forgive you all kinds of liberal lurching if they know you're reliable on the one big thing. Look at me — I gave the lefties the first real school desegregation, funded the arts, offered a guaranteed annual wage, went for all that environmental garbage. And members of my political base never worried — hell, they helped re-elect me in a landslide — because they knew I always had my eye on one great crusade: anti-Communism.

Q: And the equivalent for Bush is his pursuit of Al Qaeda? You think that's what is keeping together the social conservatives, the economic conservatives, the libertarian fringe, all of us?

RN: You've been too long at The Times, Bill. Taking charge of the world will dominate the center, intimidate all but the looniest left and keep him high in the polls. But the way Bush protects his base on the right — the voters he can never afford to lose — is to continually hammer away on tax cuts.

Q: That would appeal to the business types, and the upper middle class in suburbia, but what attraction does a tax cut have for the religious right? What's it got to do with abortion, with same-sex marriage and all the social issues that turn out the troops?

RN: Tax cuts and terrorism — and his just not being Clinton — will keep 'em in line. Add to that the evangelicals' love affair with Israel, where George W. is a world apart from his old man. And toss in some faith-based programs that don't cost much but show his heart's in the right place. Cut the death tax and dividend tax and jack up the child credit this year, and campaign next year on making them permanent, and Bush is home free.

Q: But won't that cause a huge deficit and scare the economic conservatives?

RN: Let me say this about that. When the jobless rate is going up, to hell with the deficit. I take a class here from John Maynard Keynes, who's dead in the long run, just like he said. What will the Democrats do, try to raise taxes just before the election? Never happen. And whenever the economy turns, Bush can say his tax cuts did it.

Q: What's your media advice to Bush?

RN: Continue with no formal press conferences; he's killed that tradition and you guys have given up nagging. Come the late fall, he should make a big vision speech at some dramatic occasion like Saddam's funeral, or Bin Laden's, or a Middle East breakthrough, or some love fest with Blair and Chirac and Schrφder and the new Iraqi leader.

Q: What's the theme?

RN: Invite the world to join the U.S. in seeking a new generation of freedom. Not just anti-terror, but pro-democracy. Refine the white paper on pre-emption, which is just a response to a present danger, and think big, as Woodrow Wilson did: explore the criteria for constructive intervention and the limits of tyrannical sovereignty. Get the grand design from Rummy and Cheney — they started out with me, you know.

Q: You're fading, but quickly — what's your reading of the Democratic field?

RN: Kerry can't smile and Lieberman smiles too much. Gephardt has no eyebrows and Edwards comes across as tricky. Dean would be a godsend for us, blowing his cool in debate. Joe Biden would give Bush the most trouble, but he's waiting too long. Gotta run to Keynes's class. Where's the damn button to turn this thing off?

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