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Bush capitalizes on perks of incumbency

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Treasury Department analyzes John Kerry’s tax proposals and the numbers quickly find their way to the Republican National Committee. The Health and Human Services Department spends millions on ads promoting President Bush’s prescription drug plan. The House Resources Committee posts a diatribe against Kerry’s “absurd” energy ideas on its Web site.

With friends like these — all operating at taxpayer expense — who needs a re-election campaign?

In the time-honored tradition of presidents past, Bush is skillfully using the resources of the federal government to promote his re-election. And some critics say the president is going far beyond his predecessors in using government means to accomplish political ends.

“What this administration has done is taken trends from the past and then projected them into the stratosphere,” said Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University. “We’ve never seen a political operation like this White House does, and that includes the maximum use of government resources.”

Bush is flying Air Force One to battleground states at a clip that eclipses even that of President Clinton, known as a particularly political president. His Cabinet secretaries are covering additional ground to spread good news about the Bush administration. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who insists “I don’t do politics,” has chimed in to cast Kerry as a flip-flopper on jobs and to question his claim that some world leaders quietly prefer the Democratic presidential candidate over Bush.

With the House and Senate both in Republican hands, Bush gets plenty of help from Congress, too. The last president to have that advantage at re-election time was Jimmy Carter, and he was hardly a favorite of Democrats in Congress.

This year, congressional committees have posted anti-Kerry commentary on their Web sites. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was out front in attacking the credibility of Richard Clarke, the former Bush administration official who criticized the president’s terrorism policies. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., regularly uses his daily chats with reporters to critique “John Kerry & Co.”

Democrats cry foul
Some Democrats, predictably, are crying foul.

“This is the most say-anything, do-anything-to-get-re-elected administration in history,” said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, adding that the administration has “crossed the line” and gone beyond what is acceptable.

Rep. Robert Matsui of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has complained that House Republicans abused taxpayer resources to attack Kerry on an official congressional Web site. Other Democrats tried to get the Medicare prescription drug ads yanked from TV, and asked the General Accounting Office to examine whether that was proper use of taxpayer dollars.

Doug Sosnik, who was White House political director during Clinton’s re-election campaign, says any incumbent president “would be crazy not to take advantage of all opportunities of incumbency to get re-elected, but these guys have gone off in areas that are way over the line and I can’t imagine that the American public will fall for any of it.”

Republicans, in the spirit of the movie “Casablanca,” say no one should be shocked, shocked that there is politics going on here.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Rich Bond calls the whole issue “nonsense,” especially the carping about the costs to taxpayers for White House travel to politically important states.

“Using federal government assets is unavoidable in terms of having contact with everyday people and it’s a topic that White House lawyers from Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton and now to Bush have all struggled with to make sure that you don’t break the law,” Bond said.

Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said the campaign is careful to follow the law and “draw a bright line between our campaign activities and the absolutely important work the president does in serving the people as the president of the United States.”

Double standard?
Paul Light, a professor of government at New York University, finds it ironic that Bush, who rarely passes up a chance to rail against government waste, is so adept at getting help from those on the federal payroll.

“Few presidents in history have exploited government as much as President Bush to get re-elected, yet few presidents have made government more the object of derision,” he said.

“It all acts to corrode the public’s confidence in what the government says,” he added.

To one extent or another, all recent presidents have used the advantages of incumbency to promote their re-election — “at least the ones that get re-elected did,” says Joe Lockhart, who was Clinton’s White House spokesman. Except for the Medicare prescription drug ads run by HHS, Lockhart says most of what the administration has done is fair game. Clinton, he recalled, visited electoral-rich California dozens of times prior to his re-election.

“There’s certainly nothing illegal about it and a lot of presidents have done it on a bipartisan basis,” Lockhart said.

Bush has “out-traveled and out-targeted” Clinton in visiting the so-called swing states that are most likely to be closely contested, according to a study by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Under campaign finance rules relied on by presidents of both parties, campaign dollars pay only a fraction of the costs of presidential travel, even for political trips; taxpayers finance the rest.

“While the trend toward utilizing the White House to maximize your electoral prospects began with President Nixon, I think it’s only been strengthened during the Bush administration,” Tenpas said.