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A Post-Sept. 11 Agenda

November 18, 2001|MICHAEL S. GREVE | Michael S. Greve is director of the federalism project at the American Enterprise Institute

WASHINGTON — The gratifying military victories in Afghanistan last week have not entirely laid to rest unsettling questions about the administration's conduct of the war against terrorism here at home. Memories of the government's confused response to the anthrax attacks still linger. The most distressing problem, though, is the administration's failure to define America's national interests in the war against terrorism with clarity, resolve and in contradistinction to the partisan and parochial concerns that marked the country's frivolous, self-absorbed politics before Sept. 11.

The administration's domestic priorities before Sept. 11 consisted of targeted tax cuts, finagled incentives for charitable giving and a well-intentioned but misguided education "reform" that, under congressional massaging, had mutated into a Washington-knows-best entitlement program for teachers' unions and education bureaucrats, to the point of inducing even some moderate Democratic governors and think tanks to withdraw their support. Whatever partisans may have thought, or may still think, of these programs and their political imperatives, they are not priorities any longer. Amazingly, however, the administration has yet to disavow any of them.

In the long run, the administration's failure to redefine national priorities will undermine the administration's credibility in the war against terrorism. Unfortunately, the long run began weeks ago. Examples range from the symbolic to the serious:

* On the morning of Sept. 11, President Bush was sitting in on a second-grade class at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. A few hours later, he was managing a national crisis and preparing for war. Nothing better illustrates the distance between what used to pass for "national leadership" and the serious business for which a national government and a presidency were created. Yet late last month, Bush again turned up in an elementary school classroom, this time pushing pen-palships with Muslim children at a time when public concern over his Cabinet's discombobulated response to the anthrax attacks was at its most intense.

* Agreeing in principle on a post-Sept. 11 economic-stimulus package, the administration declined to define its size or content. Instead, it allowed the House Budget Committee to start, literally, with a blank piece of paper--as if that factious, partisan body was capable of producing a document embodying the national interest. Republican representatives thus faced a choice between doing favors for friends or foes. After making the obvious choice, their product was denounced as "show time" by the secretary of the Treasury.

The administration's failure to separate national interests from poll-tested political baubles has already impeded its response to new realities. House Republicans, for example, were right in describing the Democratic demand to federalize airline security personnel as a thinly disguised labor-union bill that would ultimately undermine airline safety. (In the event of failure, what would a federal agency do--fire itself?) That assertion of a national interest, however, was undercut by the administration's support for a "stimulus" package consisting chiefly of one-time tax cuts for corporate fat cats. The party's endorsement of corporate welfare has made its objections to a labor-backed "airline security" program look like yet another Republican anti-union ploy.

Similarly, the White House's failure to articulate the distinction between national interests and politics is threatening to derail a desperately needed national energy policy. Environmental groups have launched an aggressive campaign to sever the connection between the need for expanded oil drilling in Alaska and the events of Sept. 11. To the same end, the Washington Post has published several stories plainly calculated to discredit Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton. One of these hit pieces revealed the Interior Department's mistaken assertion that most caribou calving in the proposed drilling areas on Alaska's North Slope occurred in seven (rather than 11) of the 18 years of study. The second article contended that the department failed to disclose alleged violations of international treaties that mandated the preservation of polar-bear dens. The administration's failure to respond to these attacks virtually ensures that the coming national energy debate will not revolve around our needs after Sept. 11. Instead, it will center on the pressing question of whether the Interior Department's transposition from "eleven" to "seven" was a typo or another salvo in the GOP's murderous campaign against calving caribou on "America's Serengeti."

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