No more Mr. Nice guy

Posted: Mar 05, 2004 12:00 AM

No one seems to recall another example of a sitting president phoning the likely nominee of the other party to congratulate him as George Bush did after Kerry's victory on Super Tuesday. That's so like Bush -- ever the gentleman. "This is," explained Bush spokesman Terry Holt, "the beginning of the campaign season, and I think he wanted to extend his hand across the aisle."

Reportedly Bush congratulated Kerry on his win and looked forward to a "spirited campaign." Here's how Kerry reacted: He went out to address his cheering supporters and declared that he was "under no illusions about the Republican attack machine and what our opponents have done in the past, and what they may try to do in the future." He went on to condemn the president, "who promised to become a uniter" and instead has become "a great divider." He reviled the attempt, as Kerry put it, "to amend the Constitution of the United States for political purposes." And he summed up the Bush foreign policy as "the most inept, reckless, arrogant and ideological" in history.

Might it be time for President Bush to re-evaluate his Mr. Nice Guy strategy?

He came into office promising to bring a "new tone" to Washington. And he meant it. He showed up at the House Democrats' annual retreat. He invited the entire Kennedy clan to the White House for a special showing of the film "13 Days," a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis that featured glowing depictions of President Kennedy and his attorney general brother, Bobby. In his first State of the Union address, Bush went out of his way to praise the ailing liberal Democrat Joe Moakley, D-Mass. He later attended Moakley's funeral.

Arguably, Bush's pursuit of good fellowship extended to policy, as well. To get the cooperation of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., he agreed to massive new spending. Worse, the president compromised the all-important choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. He then toured the country with Kennedy and Miller, joking about how the folks down in Crawford were a bit suspicious of the guy from Massachusetts.

Too bad the president didn't take advice from the Crawford boys.

The Bush family can't seem to see straight about the Kennedys. Even after the bilious senator had lambasted President Bush for supposedly cooking up the entire Iraq War as a political stunt and alleged that he had told "lie after lie after lie after lie," the elder George Bush gave Kennedy a public service award!

And on it goes. When the Democrats in the Senate filibustered President Bush's judicial nominees, the most he could bring himself to say was that the "Senate" was blocking action. Not the Democrats, mind you.

Frankly, it is difficult to think of a single instance during his time in office that George W. Bush has said anything stinging or even partisan about the party that has demonized him without pause for three and half years. He has never used expressions like "the Democrat attack machine," nor impugned the motives or character of those who disagree with him. As Deroy Murdoch of Scripps Howard wrote in 2001, "If Bush turns the other cheek any more, his head will fall off."

After years of friendly overtures and bipartisanship, President Bush should accept the fact that an extended hand to the Democrats is likely to be bitten off. The "party of compassion" is shot through with virulent animosity. Pollsters conducting exit polls among Democrats on Super Tuesday found widespread hatred for the president. A Georgia illustrator told The New York Times, "I'm not passionate about Kerry, but I think Bush is a positive evil."

This is mystifying. Bush's principle domestic agenda, prior to Sept.11, was the faith-based initiative to help the least fortunate. He hired a Democrat, John J. DiIulio, to oversee the program. However much they may have disagreed with the means Bush chose, Democrats might at least have acknowledged the president's goodwill and bona fides. They never did.

So as the 2004 campaign gears up, President Bush can drop the Mr. Nice Guy approach. They're going to hate him anyway, so he might as well fight like a cougar.