BAD DEBT: Amazing how times change. Just six years ago House Republicans threatened to impeach Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for using accounting gimmicks—such as borrowing funds from federal employees’ retirement funds—to stay under the federal debt ceiling, which the GOP was loathe to raise. Fast forward to the present, when House Republicans are demanding that Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill do ... exactly the same thing. Usually the debt ceiling—the limit on how much the government can borrow—is raised by an act of Congress, which is what President Bush has asked for this year. But Democrats have seized upon a debt-ceiling vote as an election-year opportunity to attack Bush and the Republicans for squandering the surplus and dipping into once-sacrosanct Social Security revenues. Thus, the GOP is trying to avoid a vote by asking O’Neill to work the same kind of economic wizardry that was considered a fireable offense when Rubin did it. But don’t worry. If this fails Republicans have a backup plan to spare themselves a debate over surpluses and Social Security: They’ll sneak an amendment raising the debt ceiling into a popular piece of legislation- -most likely an emergency appropriations bill to pay for the war in Afghanistan. Of course, the last time congressional Republicans tried something like this was in 1997, when they added an initiative on census sampling to a flood-relief bill, a move that backfired spectacularly when incredulous flood victims found out what was holding up relief funds. We’re sure our troops in Afghanistan will be more understanding.

HERE WE GO AGAIN: The handwringers are at it again. Pope John Paul II has announced gravely that he is “saddened” by the violence in the Holy Land, and has pledged the Roman Catholic Church’s help in bringing peace. But what standing does he have among Yasir Arafat and his fellow terrorists—who have presided over the exodus of Palestine’s Christian population from an increasingly fanatical society. (In their current frame of mind, it is highly unlikely that most Palestinians would take advice seriously from an infidel.) And the pope’s credentials among Israelis are rather compromised as well—given that in May of last year he stood utterly silent while Syria’s ophthalmologist-dictator, Bashar al-Assad, lectured him about the eternal guilt of the Jews for the death of Jesus. Kofi Annan has also weighed in—denouncing Israel for retaliating against the relentless terrorist attacks on its civilian population in every corner of the country and demanding that it withdraw from its “illegal occupation” of Palestinian lands. At least he had the good taste not to accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing—given that as head of the U.N. blue helmets (the organization’s “peacekeepers” in Bosnia) in the mid-1990s, Annan helped prevent international intervention against the worst ethnic cleansing in Europe since the Holocaust. In fact, the U.N. secretary-general is almost surely responsible for the destruction of more Muslim homes and the breaking apart of more Muslim families than is Prime Minister Sharon. Annan, not surprisingly, has endorsed the recent peace proposal by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah (fed to The New York Times’ Tom Friedman in a desperate effort to change the subject from Saudi Arabia’s role in September 11). That proposal—which would require Israel to give up all of East Jerusalem, not to mention the Golan Heights—goes far beyond what former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat at Taba and Camp David. But the bloody events of the last 17 months, which constitute Arafat’s most concrete response to the most pliant Israeli government in history, have proven to just about every reasonable Israeli that even Barak’s proposals were dangerously generous. In fact, the rump Palestinian state that exists today testifies powerfully enough to the dangers of insufficient Israeli vigilance. Under the Oslo agreements, emerging Palestine was allowed a police force of 30,000, equipped with 15,000 rifles and pistols and a few hundred heavy machine guns. In other words, only enough arms to police itself. But by now, partly as a result of Israel’s withdrawal, the Palestinians have smuggled and built sufficient war materiel to equip a significant military force. It does not take an especially lurid imagination to grasp that any government of Israel will find this intolerable. This means that Palestine—when its borders are finally defined—must not be permitted to abut any other Arab country, and that its ports and airports will have to be secured against the deadly contraband with which the Palestinians have so deftly destroyed their most recent opportunity for independence. Dozens of Palestinians have committed suicide in this latest round of terrorist warfare. But no matter what Annan, the pope, or anyone else in the “international community” says, Israel will not itself adopt this macabre model of politics as self-immolation.

UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED: “Women love their SUVs and minivans ... because of their safety,” declared Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, one of the senators who this week helped kill the John Kerry-John McCain proposal to raise fuel-economy standards for new U.S. vehicles 50 percent by 2015. Maybe women (and even men) do love SUVs because they think they’re safe. Problem is, it’s not true. A vehicle’s size is a less important predictor of its safety than its overall engineering—which is why, in crash tests staged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, cars and SUVs of the same weight often receive vastly different safety ratings. In general, SUV occupants fare better than those in cars in front-to-front and side-to-front collisions but worse in rollovers—making them about as safe overall. (It’s worth noting, however, that while SUVs don’t make their occupants notably more safe, they do imperil others; someone driving an SUV is much more likely to kill someone else than is someone driving a regular car.) But even if Mikulski were right and we really did need SUVs for safety, that’s still no reason not to improve fuel efficiency. Over the last 25 years Detroit has built ever more efficient engines and drivetrains. It’s just that most of the new efficiency has gone into more horsepower rather than improved mileage. Today’s new vehicles on average accelerate about 20 percent faster than those in 1975, even though average vehicle weight has grown. We could still have our SUVs, but with much better gas mileage, by channeling the engineering improvements of modern auto engines away from acceleration and into efficiency. Unless, that is, Senator Mikulski wants to argue that driving faster will make women safer.

SPEAKING OF WEASEL WORDS:

“Those are weasel words... Compassionate conservative is just like Al Gore talking about ‘practical idealism.’ They’re designed to mean nothing. I think we need to say in plain words, ‘I am a conservative.’” —presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, January 7, 1999

“I have come to admire and respect the term ‘compassionate conservatism’ because it defeated me badly in the Republican primaries in 1999.... So I think President Bush has given a good, clear definition of that and has done a real good job.” —Tennessee Senate candidate Lamar Alexander, March 11, 2002

This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.