War! (Ugh!) What is it good for?

Heard the one about the liberal who flashed back to December 12, 2000, the day the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount of votes in Florida, effectively deciding last year's contested presidential election in favor of George W. Bush? No? Well, you're not alone. The terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, appear to have brought the remaining scenes of that political drama to an abrupt end.

The perpetrators of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks conferred legitmacy upon a man destined throughout his term to be known as "His Fraudulency II" (His Fraudulency I was Rutherford B. Hayes, victor in the "corrupt-bargain" election of 1876, one that also found Florida playing a prominent role). As James Madison wrote in 1793, "War is the true nurse of executive aggrandizement;" and, in the wake of 9/11, this nation has witnessed the return of the "imperial presidency" with a vengeance.

Whoever the parties responsible for the suicide "bombings" in New York and Washington, D.C., they are no friends of progressivism. They have transformed Bush from pretender to the throne to "defender of civilization." Attorney General John Ashcroft's defiant posture, viewed as a liability in light of the slim margin of his Senate confirmation, is now regarded as an asset. Once considered brusque and alienating, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is now the toast of press conferences and public appearances everywhere.

Three months after 9/11, the Bush-Ashcroft-Rumsfeld ruling troika presides over a more extensive surveillance and control apparatus, oversees a stronger military-industrial complex and indicates a greater willingness to use armed forces, particularly in the Third World. The administration has even made its desire for "fast track" authority to place limits on the role of Congress in ratifying global trade agreements a test of patriotic resolve.

On the other hand, liberals have largely been political "no shows" since September. Only congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) had the courage to oppose authorizing Bush to respond to the terrorist acts with "whatever force necessary" (language ominously similar to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution granting Lyndon Johnson carte blanche to expand America's military intervention in Vietnam).

True, Senate Democrats held out for federalization of airport security workers. And, yes, they have maintained that the Bush/Republican giveaway to corporations and the wealthy in the guise of both "economic stimulus" and "national unity" should be smaller and ought to include a few more benefits for working people.

But, if you simply substitute the word terrorism for communism, establishment politicos of both parties are saying what the country's leaders said during the Cold War. Predictably, consequences will include a truncated domestic agenda: Say goodbye to, among other things, substantive electoral and health- care reform.

What a difference a year makes in Florida, as well. Twelve months ago, Democrats were drooling at the thought of a vulnerable Jeb Bush. Today, the governor enjoys an approval rating of 80 percent, up 25 points since the attacks. His popularity is evidence of a trickling down of the "rally 'round" effect that sent public-opinion support for his older sibling skyrocketing to 90 percent, the highest on record in half a century of polling.

Even now, Jeb leads former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the presumptive 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, 60 percent to 26 percent in the most recent polls.

Clearly, the September attacks have had an adverse effect on Florida's economy, 20 percent of which is in the tourist sector. Canceled vacations and postponed conventions exacerbated already slumping business activity and led to larger than already expected revenue shortfalls. The operative word in each instance, however, is already.

Despite enthusiastic claims to the contrary, it turns out that the speculative, high-tech, dot-com bubble of a "new economy" is subject to the cyclical boom and bust characterizing the old economy. But don't expect to receive help from Gov. Bush's "Operation Paycheck" initiative if you were displaced prior to 9/11. Only those "separated from employment" after the events of that day are eligible.

The governor and his GOP majority have cut more than $1 billion from the state budget (almost two-thirds of which will come from public education) while squabbling amongst themselves over whether delay of an intangibles-tax cut for businesses and affluent Floridians is tantamount to a tax increase.

There were, of course, matters other than those associated with September's terrorism, the subsequent anthrax scare and resultant deaths, and the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Variously, President Bush has announced his intention to make federal grants available to "faith-based" organizations, refused to recognize the Kyoto global-warming agreement and made clear that the U.S. will likely withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Meanwhile, the administration began selling offshore Florida oil-drilling leases for the first time in a decade.

In Florida, the state's current economic woes led some to look at the state's tax structure. The quantity of exemptions to Florida's sales tax leaves about 60 percent of potential items and services untouched. Even moderate Republicans question the wisdom of allowing so many loopholes to benefit industries and upper-income citizens. Still, people shouldn't cross their fingers that meaningful reform is in the offing.

Locally, Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez accepted a presidential invitation and opted for the political oblivion that is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (The potential payoff will come upon his inevitable reentry into the private sector.) Martinez' appointed successor, Rich Crotty, made shutting down dance "rave" clubs an initial priority, reinforcing the area's reputation as a backwater burg in the process.

While 2000's "big story" is unlikely to be relegated to an historical footnote, one year later a majority of people indicate that the controversy over the presidential election was either a minor problem or no problem at all. (Only about one-third held this view last December.)

Moreover, the percentage supporting major electoral reforms has declined from 67 percent to 43 percent during this same period of time. Voices calling for Electoral College abolition -- always a long shot given that the Constitution's amending process requires "super majorities" -- have become silent.

Concerns about the health of American democracy have been replaced by a narrative telling people that the battle against terrorism will be a very lengthy one, that it will require sustained effort abroad and sacrifice at home: We must be particularly vigilant, ever watchful for the enemy amongst us. If this seems familiar, well, it is similar to situations described in George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale."

So 2002 is just around the corner with the Bush Brothers riding high in the saddle. But as the saying goes, a year is a long time in politics; they can surely ask their daddy about that one.

Michael Hoover teaches political science at Seminole Community College.
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