Respond to this Article September 2004

Vengeance is His

By Paul Begala

A president who unveils his ideas for his second term in the last hundred days of his reelection campaign is admitting that he has no new ideas for the next four years. So why is George W. Bush bothering to run again, anyway? Perhaps to justify what he sees as accomplishments--principally, tax cuts for the rich and the occupation of Iraq. Perhaps for the chance to one-up his dad as a two-term President Bush. But I believe much of his second term will be given over to another motive--one that's more personal and political:

Vengeance.

If George W. Bush is given a second term, and retains a Republican Congress and a compliant federal judiciary, he and his allies are likely to embark on a campaign of political retribution the likes of which we haven't seen since Richard Nixon.

How do I know this? I'm from Texas. Again and again, I've seen Bush turn a blind eye as his henchmen have leveled zealous attacks against his political enemies--assaults which the president himself has sometimes directly encouraged. Perhaps most disturbing, the subjects of these attacks have often been longtime Bush allies who ended up on the president's enemies list for minor slights.

Back home Bush had no better Democratic buddy than House Speaker Pete Laney, a quintessential Texas good ol' boy who ran the House through his mastery of both procedure and policy. Together with the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Laney was responsible for Bush's success as Texas governor. (The governor of my state has little real power, but Bush teamed ably and admirably with Laney and Bullock.)

After the Supreme Court handed the 2000 election to Gov. Bush, it was Pete Laney who let him address the nation from the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives, even introducing Bush as a bipartisan healer. Bush made a point of praising Laney, whom he called "my friend."

Two and a half years later, Bush's "friend" was holed up in Ardmore, Okla., in a vain attempt to stop a bone-crunchingly partisan redistricting of Texas that could not have been brought about without the approval of his buddy George. The congressional map was redrawn just two years after the last redistricting--not because population patterns had shifted, but because political power had shifted. When Democrats fled the state to prevent legislative action on the redistricting plan, the Texas Rangers were called in to track them down. And when the Rangers couldn't find the Democrats, the Republicans called in President Bush's federal Department of Homeland Security, which found them by tracing Laney's private plane.

Today Pete Laney is no longer Speaker--with Bush's help, Republicans took over the Texas Legislature--and now Pete is in the fight of his life, running in a new, Republican district created with the support of his old buddy.

Thanks, George.

Laney's story is especially upsetting because Bush tried to destroy someone who had never crossed him--simply for the crime of being a Democrat.

Tony Sanchez's story is different. He actually dared to run against Bush's handpicked successor. The son of a typewriter repairman, Sanchez is a great American success story, rising from days packing produce on the Mexican border to eventual success in the very areas that had disappointed Bush: in the oil patch and, later, in banking. In 1994, Sanchez donated $300,000 to Bush's campaign, making him one of Bush's leading Democratic supports and putting him in league with Ken Lay as one of the largest patrons of Bush's early political career.

Sanchez stood by Bush when he ran for reelection, and then when he ran for president. But he just couldn't stomach Rick Perry, Bush's lieutenant governor, who took over when Bush went to Washington. So Sanchez decided to run himself, perhaps naively thinking his old pal George might be neutral in a race between his lieutenant governor and his most prominent Hispanic supporter.

Fat chance.

Bush not only actively campaigned for Perry, but he also allowed Perry's goons to run vicious ads against Sanchez. They portrayed Sanchez as somehow complicit in the 1985 torture and murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena because during the 1980s, drug dealers used Sanchez's bank (as they did most banks on the border) without his knowledge.

What the ads did not mention is that Sanchez helped federal authorities bust the bad guys, and earned the praise of the Reagan Justice Department. In fact, when the ads ran, David Almaraz, the DOJ official who handled the investigation, denounced them, saying, "Perry's claim is absolutely preposterous and completely false, without any foundation and fact."

But Sanchez's vast fortune was no match for good old-fashioned Texas racism. Do the math: Mexican American plus rich plus bank plus drugs equals disaster. Sanchez was crushed in the 2002 election.

We don't have to wonder what George W. Bush might do with four more years in the most powerful job on earth--and with no future campaigns to curb his enthusiasm. He's already countenanced the abuse of the federal anti-terror agency to hound Pete Laney. He's already smiled approvingly as racist ads were run against Tony Sanchez. And he's made vengeance a top priority in Washington already.

A prime example is the White House's treatment of Tom Daschle in late 2001. Up until that point, Daschle had been an amiable partner, working with Bush to craft compromises on several important early pieces of legislations and standing strong behind Bush after September 11. In those dark and desperate days, Daschle even earned a public hug from Bush on national television. But in November 2001, Daschle successfully blocked a Bush-backed "economic stimulus" bill which would have, among other things, given a quarter billion dollar tax cut to Enron.

Bush was mad. Just after Thanksgiving 2001, he directed his staff to attack Daschle publicly; shortly thereafter, everyone from Ari Fleischer to the National Review to the editorial page of The Washington Times pushed the White House line that Daschle was an "obstructionist." Rush Limbaugh did them one better: on his radio show, he started calling the Senate Majority Leader "Puff Daschle" and "El Diablo." The GOP attack machine funded aggressive, anti-Daschle ads in South Dakota--an unprecedented direct assault by a president against a sitting leader of the Senate. One particularly egregious ad, which complained that Daschle's opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve threatened our national security, featured a photograph of Daschle next to one of Saddam Hussein.

Who will be the next unlucky enemy targeted under a second Bush term? I'd put my money on any Democratic swing-state legislator who seeks to accommodate him. Moderates like Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) might feel an even greater political imperative to accommodate Bush on his second-term agenda--from further tax cuts to privatizing social security--but if history is any guide, he will simply pocket their support and then viciously attack them. That, after all, was the fate of former Sen. Max Cleland who supported Bush's tax cuts and the war in Iraq. All he got for his goodwill was a ruthless general election campaign engineered by the national GOP on behalf of Saxby Chambliss, who ended up taking Cleland's seat after attack ads charged that the Vietnam triple amputee was soft on national security.

If Democrats are smart, they will instead steal a page from the playbooks of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the late senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). In the midst of tough midterm election challenges in heavily contested swing-states, both politicians stood up to Bush. Although the GOP attack machine whirred into action, it sputtered and failed against Harken and Wellstone. Even voters who disagreed with them on some issues admired their independence Harkin won his race easily, and Wellstone was well out in front when he died in a plane crash. Their toughness should provide a model to other targeted Democrats, even in states with split constituencies: In modern politics, as in war, there's simply nothing to be gained by accommodating the enemy.

Bush sees the world in black and white. You're either for him or against him; a saint or a sinner; a friend or a foe. If given four more years in the White House, there's little doubt that the politics of retribution and bitter partisanship will dominate every day.

Paul Begala, a former counselor to President Bill Clinton, is co-host of "Crossfire," CNN's political debate program.


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