President Bush contracts Potomac fever

Posted: Aug 09, 2001 12:00 AM
The longer a politician stays in Washington, the more likely he is to contract Potomac Fever, a condition that results in people trying to fix things that ain't broke. So, I think it's great news that President Bush has gone home to the heartland for a vacation. But it would be even better if the White House had the guts to call it a vacation instead of the president's "Home to the Heartland Tour." The fact that the administration didn't may be the first sign of Potomac Fever. That they likely will use this tour to promote their "Communities of Character Initiative" is a sign that they may need to up their quinine dosage. Last week, The Washington Post broke the story that the White House is considering a new "Communities of Character" initiative to make sure that people are nice, kids get their moms a card on Mother's Day, and that milk never, ever, goes sour again. OK, I'm just kidding about those, but the actual ideas being contemplated as part of the "Communities of Character" initiative are just as silly. One idea is to help provide e-mail links between grandkids and their grandparents. Another is to encourage communities to use the Internet more or something like that. Another idea is to nudge news organizations to "increase reporting of good news." And, my absolute favorite, the White House wants to promote movies that don't support racial stereotypes. Now, all of these things are great. And, sure, I think it would be nice for grandparents to get more e-mail from their grandkids. But companies such as AOL, Microsoft, Earthlink and Yahoo are already on the job. And why is e-correspondence between grandparents and grandkids more important than snail mail between them? Indeed, how exactly is the government going to encourage the reporting of more "good news"? The Clinton Administration got into a lot of trouble a couple of years ago when it got caught rewarding TV networks that ran shows containing anti-drug messages. The drug czar's office gave networks waivers for their public-service-announcement quotas every time someone on "Touched by an Angel" or "E.R." said "drugs aren't cool" or some such. In turn, The New York Times and others screamed about censorship. Imagine what they'd do if a Republican administration did the same thing about what constitutes "good news." Besides, who would be the good-news czar? It sounds like the sort of position they'd have in the Soviet Union if it were run by Walt Disney. Don't even get me started on what an Office of Negative Stereotype Policy would look like. Look: There's a huge difference between things needing to be done and the government needing to do them. A Republican administration is supposed to know that. And it does know it. Which is why the Communities of Character initiative reeks of Clintonian triangulation. After the Contract with America helped Republicans take over the House and Senate, Clinton brilliantly switched to a bunch of micro-initiatives like supporting school safety, school uniforms and various other things that didn't require legislative approval. This was brilliant on several levels. It showed voters that the president wasn't irrelevant, and it kept Clinton in the news. But more importantly, these small-scale values issues obscured the Democratic Party's weaknesses on large-scale values issues by making the Democrats the defenders of "nice" government precisely when Newt Gingrich was trying to tear it down. Everyone in Washington agrees that Clinton was extremely savvy for doing all of this. And, everyone agrees that Bush is trying to do the same thing. But few people think it is a brilliant idea. As my National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru points out, the Clinton micro-strategy helped Clinton where he was weak, while Bush's proposals would weaken him where he is strong. Clinton changed the subject to "values" issues that made the Democrats seem mainstream. But the Republican Party wins on values issues by a wide margin in every political calculation. So by proposing these harmless and symbolic bits of mini-federal activism, the Republicans would be changing the subject from values issues - guns, abortion, crime, etc - where Democrats still do poorly to areas where Dems look good. Moreover, there's an important principle here for conservatives. We want government to do very little. That's different from wanting it to do very little (ital) things (end ital). The lesson in the Communities of Character initiative is that if the federal government can make sure little Timmy sends grandpa an e-mail, it can do anything. And that's something only people with Potomac Fever think.