Bush's strategy: Pander to prejudice


ATLANTA - In Massachusetts, Karl Rove has unearthed a weapon of mass distraction-related program activity. You may recall that the state's Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling in November legalizing gay marriage.

That ruling allowed Mr. Rove, President Bush's political handler, to change the subject. He didn't want to go into the presidential campaign talking about the issues that matter most in the life of the republic: the failure to find WMD in Iraq, the gargantuan (and growing) budget deficit, millions of lost jobs. Mr. Rove didn't want Mr. Bush to have to defend his decisions on the environment, his pandering to big business, his knee-jerk allegiance to the wealthy. On those issues, he is vulnerable.

So Mr. Rove badly needed a distraction - a surefire appeal to voters' baser instincts. And he found it with the Massachusetts ruling.

Now, Mr. Bush can run a campaign that whips up fear and hate, primal instincts that often overrun common sense. Gay marriage doesn't affect the household income of the average voter or his children's chances for getting into good colleges. It doesn't outsource jobs to India. And it doesn't contribute to the decline of heterosexual marriage. (We haven't needed any help with that.)

But it does stir the blood and cloud the judgment of many Americans, persuading them to vote for the candidate who pledges to protect them from it. At the very least, Mr. Bush believes his signal of support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage will inspire conservative Christians, whose legendary organizational skills could give him the margin of victory in November.

(In case the president's gay bashing isn't enough, the word has gone out to state Republicans to foment homophobia in time for the presidential election. In Georgia, for example, Republican legislators are leading a push for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, although there is already a state law enshrining that particular brand of intolerance.)

The White House's gay bashing strategy is a sign of its desperation. Mr. Bush had planned to campaign as the steadfast commander in chief, but he now finds that that approach invites suspicion - if not derision.

David Kay has not only confirmed that there were probably no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (only weapons of mass destruction-related program activities), but, adding insult to injury, he has also speculated that President Bill Clinton ended Saddam Hussein's weapons-building capacity with surgical strikes in 1998. Mr. Rove doesn't want to call attention to that.

Besides, Mr. Bush's emphasis on a continuing threat is counterintuitive. Although he peppered his State of the Union speech with references to "war" and "terror," the president and his advisers frequently tell us that the country is safer now that Mr. Hussein is in custody.

That leaves Mr. Rove with few tricks left. The mission to Mars hasn't been mentioned since Mr. Bush's early January announcement, perhaps because polls showed Americans had little enthusiasm for it.

While the president's immigration reform proposal did garner a brief mention in the State of the Union address, that plan is not polling well, either. Though the proposal - which calls for expanded guest worker visas - has real merit, Mr. Bush is unlikely to burn precious political capital getting it passed.

Steroids? Hardly a rallying cry.

The Massachusetts ruling came to Mr. Rove's rescue, allowing him to run a campaign that feeds on the nation's last broadly accepted prejudice. (And all the more so if Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry becomes the Democratic nominee.) It is a stunning second act for a president whose first campaign claimed he was a uniter, not a divider.

But the sad thing is, a vicious campaign that plays on prejudice and fear could boomerang Mr. Bush right back into the White House. That's why politicians take the low road; it often leads to high places.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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