NEW YORK — It is impossible to overstate the importance of tossing U.S. President George W. Bush back onto the unemployment lines in 2004. His illegitimate presidency isn’t even half-over, yet Bush’s disreputable Cabinet of tin-pot gangsters has already succeeded in causing irreparable harm to our great nation.

When President Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, he left behind a balanced budget and the expectation that we would pay off the entire federal deficit within eight years. The resulting interest savings could have gone to tax cuts, spending or both.

But Bush trashed years of fiscal discipline in mere months — all to line the pockets of his wealthy donors with extravagant tax cuts they neither needed nor deserved. And that cynical cash grab wasn’t enough, now he’s pushing to make their disastrous kickbacks permanent!

Ignoring polls that prove that most Americans consider themselves environmentalists, Bush’s oil-corporation-owned Cabinet has worked to sink drills into the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, gutted the Environmental Protection Agency and ignored the deepening ecological crisis caused by global warming.

Worst of all, Bush has launched a full-scale assault on the Bill of Rights in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Thousands of people have been rounded up and held in detention without being charged with a crime. Billions of dollars have been appropriated for “homeland defense,” yet the director of the government agency demanding those funds refuses to tell Congress what will be done with the money. Our brutal war of vengeance against Afghanistan failed to apprehend Osama bin Laden or top Taliban officials and has accomplished nothing but pissing off Muslims around the world. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of American soldiers are being dispatched to die in other insane misadventures in Georgia, Tajikistan and the Philippines.

As Bush’s approval rating plummets — from September’s high of 90 percent down to this week’s 67 percent — it’s clear that he won’t be able to ride the destruction of the World Trade Center to victory. Disgust with Bush will eventually assume a bipartisan tone; after all, he has made a mockery of core GOP values by moving so far to the right on fiscal conservatism and respect for individual liberties that he risks falling off the edge of the ideological spectrum.

America has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and Vietnam. With luck, we’ll withstand two more years as Bush’s extremists continue to trash the economy and ruin what little good will we once enjoyed overseas. Assuming there’s much of a country left to govern by 2004, Democrats are asking themselves: Whom should we nominate then?

Successful presidential campaigns have often assumed the form of a political grudge match. Nixon-Humphrey became a rematch of Nixon-Kennedy and Gerald Ford ’76 was a proxy for Nixon in ’72. In 2000, Bush played his father and Gore stood in for the man he’d served as vice president; Bush supporters subconsciously voted to reverse the results of 1992. Likewise, 2004 will be a replay of 2000 — but only if Democrats renominate Gore.

In recent appearances before Florida Democrats and for Earth Day, Gore has signaled that he’s now prepared to assume a gonzo take-no-prisoners approach to a rematch with Bush. More importantly, many Democrats refuse to acknowledge Bush’s presidency and are looking to 2004 to set things right. “The recount is alive and well,” says political scientist Susan McManus of the University of South Florida. “It has legs in places with large Democratic constituencies.” The only way to energize those key voters is by renominating Gore.

Out of all the early possibles for a 2004 run, only Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gore’s 2000 running mate, has pledged not to run in the event of a Gore candidacy. But should Gore choose to go for it — an announcement that Lieberman says will come later in 2002 — all the Democratic candidates should pledge not to challenge Gore in the primaries. Given the extreme nature of Bush’s rightwing power grab and the vile aftertaste of the 2000 judicial coup d’etat, Democrats must forego their usual infighting in the interest of unity at the party convention.

A Gore-Bush rematch will involve a different Bush — the dopey frat-boy moderate of 2000 has morphed into a sinister corporate and military shill. If he wants to win, Gore, too, must change — into a JFK-style visionary. He must lose his old wonky star-pupil style in favor of sweeping rhetoric about generosity and openheartedness in an America with endless potential and achievable possibilities. He must signal the long-neglected liberal base of the Democratic Party that he’s on their side while assuring moderate swing voters that he’s no raving radical.

Most of all, Gore must crave the White House more than life itself. As he learned in Florida, 51 percent isn’t enough to win when Republicans have a 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court.

The 2004 election will hand Democrats a host of issues they can exploit should they choose to do so:

* The Environment: Gore is right to begin his 2004 campaign here, playing to his strengths — bashing the Bush record on emissions is a good start. But he doesn’t want to end up doing a reprise of the wacky professor routine that served him so poorly in 2000. The key is to keep things emotional and general: Bush says that global warming requires more study before we get off our butts. Hasn’t he noticed that we are scoring record high temperatures every year?

* The Economy: It’s probably something in the Bush genes, but like his father Poppy, the Generalissimo neither recognizes the fact of the recession nor is willing to take the Keynesian steps necessary to stop it. As in 1992, un- and underemployed Americans won’t re-elect (or, in Bush’s case, elect) a president who seems out of touch and willing to let them suffer indefinitely.

* The War on Terror: Another dramatic terrorist attack, perfectly timed, could throw knee-jerk rally-around-the-dolt support Bush’s way. But if the jihadis lay off, attention-deficient Americans will have tired of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge’s color-coded alerts and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s wars against hapless civilians in countries no one’s ever heard of. Right or wrong, no one likes a Chicken Little. And even if there’s another attack, voters will ask themselves why the Bushies couldn’t prevent it.

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